Bystanders

Bystanders

Posted on March 13 by Stephen Stohn
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Recent events in the United States have spawned heated debates over sexual harassment, and gun regulation, and some conversations about mental health, but there’s been less focus on the larger context in which these issues so often arise: bullying.

In my new book, Whatever It Takes, I go behind the scenes of a 2004 episode of Degrassi called “Time Stands Still.” Some of the lessons we learned while producing that episode still resonate today. The episode represents the climax to an ongoing story of a boy named Rick who had engaged in bullying behaviour, been ostracized and bullied himself as a result, then had tried to redeem himself unsuccessfully until — feeling utterly hopeless and alone — he brings a gun to school.

In order to help us produce the episode responsibly, we consulted with an expert, Barbara Coloroso, an internationally recognized speaker and consultant on bullying, who lived in Littleton, Colorado where the Columbine school shooting tragedy unfolded. Her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander was published just two years after that tragedy.

She told us about the wide range of factors that go into this kind of bullying, not just the bully and the victim, but the whole circle of people surrounding both sides — a circle which fosters an unhealthy dynamic that can end in violence.

It was the bystanders that Barbara particularly emphasised; “bystanders” meaning not the friends and families of the victims, but rather the administration and the rulemakers who enabled a dysfunctional environment to continue.

We in turn emphasised the bystanders in our story-telling. One bystander was the character Jimmy (played by the entertainer now known as Drake), who ironically had been supportive of Rick but at the same time had been part of the overall bullying environment. He ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair for the rest of his years at Degrassi.  

I believe that this past year has raised questions in all of us about what it means to be a bully, to be bullied, and to be a bystander, and what our responsibilities to take action may be. Think of all the people who knew about Harvey Weinstein or any of the other well-known predators/bullies who have recently been brought to public awareness. In some cases, it took years before the truth started to pour out. While we cannot find fault with the women who were attacked and stayed silent, afraid for their careers and their personal safety, I think we can all question the people surrounding and supporting Weinstein and so many others like him for not somehow alerting the press or the authorities earlier. We ask ourselves, “What would I have done in that situation?” Is the answer different today than it would have been a year ago?

I’d like to think that over the years Degrassi — not just in the “Time Stands Still” episode, but through multiple bullying storylines — has helped spread this message in some small way: that the more we talk about bullying and use whatever means we, as bystanders, have at our disposal to shine light on any bullying we witness, the further we will move away from a society where this behaviour is allowed, and is seemingly acceptable.

Stephen Stohn

Posted by KathrynB on April 11, 2017
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Stephen Stohn

Stephen Stohn is a Canadian entertainment lawyer and the executive producer of the Degrassi television franchise. He was also executive producer of The Juno Awards for two decades, during which he was director and then the chair of CARAS. He lives in Toronto.