The five steps of inaction

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Chicoans are expressing a range of emotions about the case of a highly intoxicated girl being sexually assaulted at a party and observed by as many as 20 people. As has been reported in the press, it took four weeks for the case to come to the attention of the police, even though the story spread far beyond the 120 people at the party and became common knowledge at Pleasant Valley High School.

Chicoans have expressed a variety of views about the event, many heartfelt. There have been outpourings of support for the girl who was victimized, particularly the demonstration in Downtown Plaza Park on Nov. 16. On the other hand, some young people profess to be unsurprised. Without excusing what happened, they assert that such behavior is normal at parties of high-school students in Chico. Still others blame the girl for being provocative and “teasing” the boys and are concerned that boys with otherwise good reputations are being prosecuted.

This simple fact illustrates an interesting point about the community’s reaction to this event: Both the victim and the alleged perpetrators have been maligned in the court of popular opinion. Why? Why is there such a disparity of opinion and emotion tied to this single case? Why has this particular case captured the attention of almost every segment of our community? Why are other, similar events virtually ignored?

To many who were not at the party, it seemed like any sense of right and wrong had suddenly departed from the people who were there. Perhaps the most basic question is why none of the people at the party called the police. Such a call would have saved the victim and the community a great deal of pain and humiliation.

A horror from New York
As sociologists we know that witness failure to respond is a complex issue. It happened in Chico between Oct. 5 and the early part of November; it happened in the celebrated Kitty Genovese case in New York City in 1964, where a fatal assault and rape were not reported by 38 witnesses.

Conscience works in strange ways in crowds; that is, the size of a crowd or group influences how an individual may respond to various situations, including perceived trouble or threatening situation. The Kitty Genovese case is instructive. In this case, a young woman returned home after work to a middle-class New York neighborhood. She was attacked three times during more than 30 minutes before the police were summoned.

During the investigation the following day, police found that 38 people had observed all or part of the attack and reported that Genovese screamed and cried for help during most or all of it. The explanations for not calling the police resonate in Chico today. The witnesses thought it was a lovers’ quarrel; they didn’t want to get involved; they thought someone else would call the police; they didn’t know the phone number; they were afraid of retaliation. Any one of the witnesses could have called and prevented the final one or two attacks that eventually killed Kitty Genovese.

In response to the Genovese incident, social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted several studies to learn how individuals respond to emergencies. They identified five steps an individual must progress through in deciding to help someone in need. First, the event must be noticed. Next, the event must be interpreted as an emergency. Third, the observer must assume some responsibility to assist. Fourth, there must be an appropriate form of assistance (such as calling 9-1-1). And, finally, the observer must act.

What we have learned from the rape of the Pleasant Valley High School student is that at least 20 (and up to 120) individuals failed to progress through this continuum. They probably got stuck somewhere early in the process.

The failure to progress through these steps to provide assistance is shocking in its callousness, at least to those of us not present. It is clear that the people at the party noticed the event (whether actively or passively) and endorsed it and did not see the brutal treatment of a peer as an emergency.

There were several appropriate ways to respond in this context. Someone could have voiced his or her objection to the actions that were taking place. Surely there was a telephone available in the house that could have been used to discreetly notify the authorities. That no one did anything to help the victim demonstrates that no one thought the event was critical enough to warrant assistance. In fact, this was the case for nearly three weeks. Perhaps the rumors we are hearing are true: This kind of behavior happens at many Chico area parties.

As for the important step of assuming responsibility, being part of a crowd often makes the denial of responsibility to act easier. It becomes easy to assume that “someone else” will call 9-1-1 and that it is not necessary for “me” to get involved. Latane and Darley’s research showed that, when bystanders are present, individuals are uncertain about how to act and look for cues from others who are also less likely to act in group situations. Ultimately, this means that people who might help if alone do not do so when just a handful of others are present.

Finally, no matter how horrifically we view the events after the fact, we know that witnesses are hesitant about reporting crime, whether they notice it or not. Statistics about rape tell us that this is a crime that happens all too frequently. Nationally, it is estimated that one in five women have been the victim of rape. Unfortunately, the majority of these assaults go unreported to the police. Domestic violence is one of the most notoriously under-reported crimes.

Judging from recent news reports, there has recently been a great deal of under-reported white-collar crime in the executive suites of Enron, Arthur Andersen and other multi-national corporations. About all these situations, the same question can be asked: Why do some people report crimes and others look the other way?

Underreporting rape
The Chico Rape Crisis Center reports that it knows of 59 individuals involved with gang rapes during the last year in Chico. More to the point, a similar event focused on middle-school students occurred in Durham this fall but has received little local attention or outcry. In each of these cases, those arrested and those standing by presumably got stuck somewhere along Latane and Darley’s principles and did not intervene with a simple 9-1-1 call. In both cases a young woman was victimized and other young women and men who were “normal” became accessories to, and even committed, horrible crimes. Why, and how does this happen? Is it peculiar to young people, as some have suggested, or is it a more general problem?

In this context, it is interesting to ask why this one assault has become such an important focus of community attention. If, as the Chico Rape Crisis Center reports, this type of gang assault has occurred elsewhere in Chico, why has this case suddenly horrified Chico, and not others? Does the fact that the crime occurred in a middle-class neighborhood matter? If such an event happened in a college fraternity house, would it be dealt with differently?

Help us out
We know that Chicoans are thinking about witness behavior a lot lately, and in that context we would like to solicit your views about why so many local teenagers failed to act. Why has this incident captured the attention of Chicoans in such a powerful way? Is the community responding in an appropriate fashion, or should something more (or less) be done? Who do you think is at fault in this situation? Why? Do you think that such an event could happen again in Chico? What should be done to make people more willing to report the crimes they observe?

Please give us your opinions about this matter and the questions posed above. Youth thoughts can be extremely helpful to our community leaders as we try to prevent such a horrific act from happening again. If you do not wish to provide your name, please feel free to contact us anyway. In any case, we shall protect your anonymity. We may be contacted by email (, telephone (898-5076 and 898-4145), by dropping a letter off at the Sociology office in Butte Hall 615, or by mail at the Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico, CA 95929-0445.