The Law and You

Penny Clute, Law and You

My last column was about sexual assault on college campuses, and the new emphasis on education and prevention.  

One aspect is a program called Step Up! that encourages training for “bystander intervention.” Basically, bystanders can be friends, teammates, bartenders or total strangers. They happen to witness a troubling situation and make the choice to intervene — to step up and try to interrupt what is going on, either personally or calling upon someone else.

Examples of such circumstances might be harassment or physical abuse, drinking games leading to passing out and vulnerability to sexual assault, or insults building to a fight.  

They could also be concern about a friend’s possible depression or other mental-health issues. Such troubling situations are not limited to college; they are in families and communities everywhere. What to do?


SUNY Plattsburgh and other colleges are following the lead of the University of Arizona, which developed Step Up!, along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The website,, has a great deal of helpful information and resources. The Step Up! home page asks: "Have you ever been concerned about a situation and wanted to help but didn’t? You’re not alone."    

To me, it is an intriguing and wonderful idea that ordinary bystanders can make a difference. They learn that we actually can prevent or change an outcome by intervening. 

The older view is far different: Don’t get involved.

When I was a lawyer and judge, I spent many years seeing people at the worst times in their lives. 

They were people victimized by assault, sexual abuse and other crimes, and also those who were charged with these acts. The physical and emotional impacts last a long time. What if someone had stepped in? 

What if a buddy stopped a friend who was drinking too much and on the verge of a fight? Then no one would be injured, nor anyone facing jail time and a criminal record.

What if someone helped make sure an obviously intoxicated person got home safely? 

That would certainly reduce the risk they could be harmed. What if someone started talking, and listening, to the acquaintance who always looked so sad and alone? Then maybe there could be help for those thoughts of hopelessness, and not a suicide.


What the “bystander intervention” movement recognizes is that there are many concerned folks who are troubled by things they see, but they do not know what to do. 

In bystander training, people learn when and how to help. The programs describe how to notice and assess problems and encourage taking personal responsibility to help. 

They teach non-confrontational approaches and techniques for defusing situations. Different scenarios are presented, and a variety of helping strategies are discussed, which include knowing who to call on.


This is the opposite of the mindset that “it is none of my business.” 

We used to apply that thinking even to law enforcement. It was not until the 1990s that police were required to make arrests when presented with evidence of domestic violence.

The attitude was that what happened in a home, behind closed doors, was private, and the police should simply calm down the situation. 

Our society has largely changed — the law recognizes that a parent-child or intimate relationship does not carry with it the right to abuse. Conduct that would be criminal if committed against a stranger is also criminal when committed against a family member or loved one.


There are many times a bystander can interrupt a situation before it becomes dangerous, before there is a victim and a criminal defendant. 

When the behavior happens in public, the examples are more obvious. But, as the Step Up! program recognizes, there are also private issues for which we can be helpful bystanders. Their training topics include depression, discrimination, eating issues, gambling, hazing and cyber-stalking, as well as risks of alcohol/drug use.

They are talking about the college community, but the same principles apply to all of us. We see the behaviors of those around us, of family, of people we care about. 

We struggle over whether to try to do something and how to go about it.

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until her retirement in January 2012. 

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