To Those Who Didn't Speak Up at Penn State and Elsewhere

Dear Life’s Bystanders –

I’m mystified. I know this is not what you wanted to be when you grew up. The kind of people who would look the other way when another human being is in pain or trouble. It can’t be. Do you know what you look like?

Head down, eyes closed, ears covered, barreling through, along for the ride, job intact, reputation still exalted, power tripping, hoping for the best. Fingers crossed the foster kid getting raped is … what? Silent? Alive? Not a shattered soul?

According to Mike Dilbeck, an expert in bystander behavior, you’re part of the 80%. Not the 20% who “make choices that bring down their communities.” So many of you are the productive, righteous, well-meaning among us, not criminals or deviants.

See, here’s the thing. I figured out over the course of an afternoon, upon reading the grueling Grand Jury report on former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, that me not writing this would make me feel like a bystander. Like I would be shirking a moral obligation to express something that would be worth it if just one person stood up and spoke up for a fellow human being after reading it.

What we have in this report are allegations by multiple victims that Sandusky molested them as boys after meeting them through The Second Mile, his charity devoted to helping young boys. I started to get queasy reading it, not just from the acts themselves but, in some ways more shockingly, from reading about those of you who knew and did little or nothing. You allegedly chose not to report what you saw or knew to authorities and you range from a graduate assistant to a janitor to ousted legendary Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno.

This is in the news on the heels of 18 of you in China watching and doing nothing when a 2-year-old girl, Wang Yue, was run over by not one vehicle, but two; she eventually died. And after learning two of you, employees of the Bethesda, Md., Apple store, heard and worked through the pleas for help of a woman being murdered in the adjoining Lululemon store.

There are offenders -- some still alleged -- and there are ostriches. And, if detailed reports describing what transpired around Sandusky are true, there are sometimes layers of ostriches unwilling to rock a winning sports program. How’s the view down there in the sand? Is that meaningful living?

Maddening bystanders, all of you.

That’s one option in life. But then there’s this other one. Dilbeck calls it being an “Every|Day Hero.” He’s founder of the RESPONSE ABILITY Project and he travels around to college campuses empowering people to go that route instead of participating in bystander behavior.

Common sense, right? Because if any of you had helped the toddler run over on the street or intervened in the murder of the woman next door or called the police with knowledge of a grown man in a powerful position performing sex acts on boys, you’d be heroes. Every|Day Heroes who saved lives instead of bystanders who watched lives being destroyed in one form or other.

“You cannot be living from your values and be a bystander at the same time,” Dilbeck says in a video on his website.

Therein lies what’s at the core of this. What are your values? Do you step in regardless of cost to self? Do you intervene only if the victim is someone you know? Or only if there are no potential repercussions to your own livelihood or stead in the community? Or not at all? Who are you?

“It’s like this alien that comes and takes us over,” Dilbeck told me. “We think, what this person is doing is not really who I am. Why didn’t I do something?”

I hope you’re asking yourselves that, at the very least. I want to believe you’re mulling over, again and again, what moral courage is and why you didn’t have it in that moment or subsequent moments and what you need to do to acquire it moving forward.

At one point or another we all encounter situations that require us to call on our ability to deal with awkwardness or fear of embarrassment if we speak up. They’re not always, as Dilbeck puts it, “high drama.” He used the example of littering – do you speak up if you see someone throwing a cup on the ground or do you stifle what you know is right because you fear confrontation?

“You don’t stop until it gets taken care of,” Dilbeck says. “It’s not tricky. It’s very clear.”

Moral imperatives so rarely have gray area, but we’re human and sometimes we want to find some and camp out in there anyway. Deny. Put on blinders. Preserve the status quo. Hope the next guy speaks up.

How’s that working over in State College, Pa.? This purging that’s happening now in the public sphere must feel like something Dante cooked up. The questions, the judgments, the shunning, the outrage.

“They had an opportunity to be a hero for those boys,” Dilbeck said.

He’s right. You did.

Maybe next time. Because you’ve learned. Please say it is so.


Nancy Colasurdo

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to