I wish I could say this was an unimaginable crime. But it’s real.
Five – out of as many as 10 – young men between the ages of 15 and 19 could appear in a Richmond, Calif. court as early as today after allegedly gang-raping a 15-year-old girl at a homecoming dance for more than two hours last weekend. The victim was apparently beaten, robbed and raped in a secluded area while the dance went on nearby.
That’s bad enough. This young girl’s life has been hijacked, violated and changed forever because of the violent, sick actions of a group of boys. But the story doesn’t stop there. Apparently as many as 20 other students stood by, watched, cheered and even took pictures as the girl was raped.
Watched. Cheered. Took pictures.
As a 15-year-old girl was beaten and raped.
No one called for help.
How does this happen? How can it be that no one in the crowd felt uncomfortable witnessing such brutality? How can it be that no one slipped away to find a teacher, tell a security guard, or call 911?
The boys – I hesitate to call them men, even though they are so far being charged as adults – will be dealt with. Five are in custody, more are being investigated, and authorities are offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of any of the assailants, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. If convicted, some could spend life in prison. That might be enough time for them to regret their actions.
But the bystanders cannot be held responsible. In California it’s a crime to not report a sex crime happening to a child 14 and younger, but this victim is 15. There’s no recourse. A law officer interviewed by ABC News Wednesday night was disgusted that there was nothing that could be done to those who didn’t help.
Police are familiar with the behavior called “mob mentality,” when a group of people act together without any planning. It’s like animals acting in a herd – they will follow the leader whether the leader jumps off a cliff or goes home to the barn. Mob mentality is often cited in instances such instances as the panic to get out of a burning building, riots, looting during a power outage or trampling when a crowd gets out of control.
“The mob mentality that took place for two and a half hours that allowed these students, these young adults, to behave this way," said Richmond police lieutenant Mark Gagan. "None of them were thinking or acting individually, it was a mob that took over."
And as for the bystanders? Attribute it to “the bystander effect,” which refers to a classic study in which researchers found that the more witnesses there are, the less likely any individual is to take action. The presence of others spreads the responsibility for action out among the crowd, lessening the effect on any single person. And the presence of the crowd itself encourages people to “go along” with what the majority is doing. It was particularly heinous in this case. In fact, one officer told ABC News that onlookers might fear that they themselves would become victims if they separated themselves from the group to seek help.
Gagan said authorities finally learned about the crime from a young woman who had heard two men bragging about it. Police later found the victim semiconscious and naked from the waist down under a picnic table about an hour after the dance ended. She is still in the hospital.
What do you think? Are bystanders responsible in a case like this? Would you have been strong enough to go for help? Or would you have been frightened to leave the group of people watching?