Toronto’s Genovese syndrome

The trial of five young men accused of murdering a teenage boy in East York three years ago recently went to Ontario Superior Court. As has been reported, some people actually watched without calling police as 17-year-old Omar Wellington bled to death walking around the Flemingdon Park area.

Sadly, the type of apathy that cost this young man’s life is not as uncommon as one may think.

This fall, in a San Francisco suburb, a 15-year-old girl was brutally raped and beaten for two and half hours as crowds of students gathered to watch and cheer. This young girl was attending a homecoming dance at her school and was attacked just outside the school’s gym doors. Many students left the dance to see what was happening outside and then went back to the dance without reporting the attack to police or school staff.

Dr. John Darley and Bibb Latane identified this behaviour as the Genovese syndrome in 1968, after studying in detail the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese. They found that although there were 38 people who witnessed Genovese being attacked, no one called the police or helped her, even though they had ample time to do so — because there was a sense of “diffusion of responsibility” due to the high number of witnesses present. The second cause they identified was the need to “behave in correct and socially acceptable ways” — meaning that someone’s lack of reaction sends a signal to others that a reaction is not needed or inappropriate.

Although these are extreme cases of violence, they are not too far from the reality that children live amidst in the schoolyard every day. The Genovese syndrome is also known as the bystander effect. It refers to this principle: the more people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

Barbara Coloroso, author of “The bully, the bullied and the bystander,” says that bystanders are “the supporting cast who aid and abet the bully, through acts of omission and commission.”

A program proven to successfully develop children’s empathy is currently being implemented in many East York schools: The Roots of Empathy program invites a parent and their baby into the classroom regularly for a period of nine months to give students an opportunity to witness their parent-child interaction. Through their observations, students are given the opportunity to identify with their own feelings as well as the baby’s, and in turn they learn to develop empathy.

Had the witnesses in both of these cases been exposed to an education where the development of empathy is encouraged, perhaps Omar Wellington would still be alive, and the horrific attack the young California girl suffered could have been prevented.

These two recent cases remind us that lack of empathy is an area that should be seriously addressed if we want to make a significant change in our society and make our schools a safer place for children to learn. This costly lesson should not be dismissed as merely a gang-related issue. Governments should consider more funding for preventive programs for youth such as Roots of Empathy.