Spurred on by story of boy’s death, Bystander Initiative seeks to prevent future harm.
By Suzi Morales
Professor Amos Guiora’s office looks pretty typical for a law professor. In the background of a video call, it’s easy to see the stacks of books and papers gathered on the shelves. One thing that stands out, though, is an eight by ten school portrait of a young boy.
This is Jeremy Bell, a 12-year-old who was murdered in 1997 by a teacher and serial sexual predator. Bell’s family, dissatisfied by the handling of the case by police, hired private investigator Dan Barber to get to the bottom of it. Barber’s investigation uncovered years of abuse ignored or mishandled by officials at multiple schools. The teacher was convicted of Bell’s murder based on Barber’s work.
In 2021, after meeting through a mutual acquaintance in the field, Barber handed the 15,000-page file from the Bell case over to Guiora to study. The record forms the backbone of the Bystander Initiative, a multi-faceted new initiative spearheaded by Guiora to address the problems caused when individuals and institutions fail to take action to stop abuse.
Goals of the initiative
One of the basic premises of the Bystander Initiative is that there is an entire systemic framework around sexual and other abuse, which Guiora has labelled the ecosystem. Guiora’s work focuses on bystanders – individuals who witness the crime – and enablers – individuals and institutions who are in positions to prevent the crime but do not do so. He has previously written books about bystander and enabler complicity in the Holocaust and in sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics and other athletic programs.
“The point of this Bystander Initiative is [summarized in] three words: one is to hold enablers and bystanders accountable; two is to work with legislators around the world on criminalizing bystanders and enablers; and three [is] to engage in a widespread education project [on] all levels on the harm caused by enablers and bystanders,” Guiora says. He and a team of student research assistants are currently writing law review articles as well as a book on the ecosystem of pedophilia framed by the facts of the Bell case. Guiora recently signed a publishing contract for the book, “Enablers and Predators: The Ecosystem of Pedophilia in Schools.” Guiora frequently speaks, appears on podcasts, and convenes groups of scholars, practitioners, victims, and victims’ rights advocates.
Guiora also has shared his research with state and national lawmakers around the world. In Utah, he has worked with state representative and Utah Law alumnus Brian King (JD85) on multiple bills. Utah has a mandatory reporting law requiring individuals to report known abuse of children and vulnerable adults. According to Guiora, eleven states – including Utah – as well as 28 countries have passed bills criminalizing bystander inaction in some way. However, he says, “There is no jurisdiction in the world that has criminalized the enabler.”
Student researchers tackle challenging topics
Currently, there are seven students working as research assistants on the project – three law students and four undergraduate students in the University of Utah Honors College.
One of those students is Aya Hibben, a senior political science major in the Honors College. Last spring, she registered for The Bystander, a course based on Guiora’s studies of complicity in the Holocaust and sexual violence, because she wanted to learn more about the Holocaust. Hibben is a former ballet dancer who was sexually abused as a young dancer. She nearly dropped the class because the subject matter was triggering. But she stuck with it, eventually becoming a Bystander Initiative research assistant.
Hibben and other student researchers pored through thousands of pages of school records, deposition transcripts, and other documents in the Bell case to piece together the full picture of systemic failures. She is writing and editing articles and portions of the forthcoming book. In addition to legal research and writing skills, Hibben also gained a vocabulary that helped her process her own experience. “When I was a ballet dancer, I was a victim of institutional complicity. Having that word and reading other cases was incredibly important to me, just to feel not so isolated and alone,” Hibben notes. Now, the former dancer has her sights set on law school.
“This is hard stuff,” Guiora notes of the subject matter of the Bystander Initiative. “Frankly, it’s brutal.” In light of the difficult subject matter, S.J. Quinney has made confidential psychological counseling available to the research assistants.
“The law school being so supportive and making sure that we’re all doing mentally okay and acknowledging our work on this project has been really wonderful,” Hibben says.
Seeking nuance in legislation
Another group of students is working on legal research on bystander and enabler liability. This is where the distinction between enablers and bystanders is important. While bystanders may have a duty to report what they see, it is more difficult to impose a duty on individuals who don’t see a crime taking place.
“It’s a tough issue,” notes King, the state representative who has used Guiora’s research in support of legislative efforts. “Because at some point, you’re pushing people in the direction of the possibility of criminalizing non-action, lack of behavior.” He hopes people recognize that, “we need to look out for each other’s welfare and personal safety and prioritize that ahead of our own selfish interests or callous indifference.”
The student team includes a variety of perspectives. Third-year law student Hannah Sakalla describes herself as “defense minded.” After graduating in 2023, she hopes to work as a public defender. She says the idea of holding non-actors criminally liable “was a sticking point at first.”
Sakalla believes legislation should take a nuanced view and consider an enabler’s power within an organization and any duty to affirmatively take action. “Pedophiles in schools don’t work alone,” she notes. “And whether people are fully knowledgeable about what’s going on and when it happened, or maybe partially [knowledgeable], that’s what we need to tease out and cater the legislation to reflect.”
Student autonomy encouraged
Guiora’s student researchers note that he is open to perspectives that differ from his own and gives them the autonomy to develop and pursue their own ideas. For example, 3L Michelle Potter, who is working on legislative research, says she presented an idea for a paper based upon her research on the criminal intent of bystanders and enablers. According to Potter, Guiora’s response was, “Great, go do it.”
The students on the Bystander Initiative also agree on something else about Guiora. “He never sleeps,” Hibben says. Students describe frequent texts and emails from the early-rising professor, who sends pre-dawn messages discussing his latest ideas.
“He’s a vision guy,” says Sakalla. “He’s a big picture guy.”
Tragic story at the heart of the initiative
Barber, whose investigation is at the center of the Bystander Initiative’s study of the abuse ecosystem, is optimistic about the team’s work. “I waited for decades for somebody like me to come along that would have an interest in the wherewithal to pursue this,” Barber says. “I gathered all that information and detail that I did on this case so it would be available for some others in different disciplines to dig in and pursue this case. [Guiora] was ideally the guy I’d been waiting for but didn’t know.”
For Guiora, it all comes back to Jeremy Bell, which is why he displays the boy’s photo in his office. When Barber handed the case file over to him, “he gave a very clear mandate to me. And his mandate to me was to make sure, as much as possible, that what happened to this little boy doesn’t happen to another child.”
You can contribute to the Bystander Initiative’s essential work by making a gift here.