“There’s something happening under the bleachers!” 

The roar (of the footy crowd) behind us got bigger.

“WHAT?” she (the teacher) yelled.

“There’s something happening. To a girl. Under the bleachers.” (says Emily.)

All at once, everyone in the stands was up on their feet screaming…we’d taken a losing game and turned it around. (p.21)

This book challenges the common law concepts of “innocent until proven guilty,” “beyond reasonable doubt” and “accessory after the fact.” A person who has been proven by evidence to have aided, abetted or procured the commission of an offence by another person is taken to have committed the offence. The book extends the committing of an offence to those who are merely present as bystanders or witnesses and dismisses any evidence relevant to the case.

Emily is a model student and member of the Youth Action Coalition Against Violence, which sponsors an anti-violence ribbon campaign based on a pledge to never commit an act of violence and to always report any acts of violence witnessed. She enjoys her work on the committee and always tries to do her best.

Now she is accused of witnessing an act of abuse and not reporting it. She did not report it because she wasn’t sure of the facts and froze in trauma. She was unable to report it immediately because she was unable to see what was happening in the dim light, a minor but extremely important point not considered in this novel. 

Emily is at a football game and has just been crying about an entirely separate matter. Embarrassed about crying in front of her friends and seeking to hide her eyes she retreats to a quiet area of the football stands and gets a snack until her eyes are normal again.

While there, she hears a strange noise. At first it sounds like an animal. It is dark under the bleachers, and striped with light, so her eyes have to adjust. She eventually concludes it must be a dog whimpering.

Gradually, she recognises Belinda Montgomery, a disabled girl whom she knew years earlier from a theatre program. Then she makes out two figures in the darkness.

“Wait…” Emily kept thinking… “wait who is that boy?”  However, Emily is struck mute, heart beating fast. She sees another football player run out from the locker room and believes he might have taken care of whatever is happening. She tells a teacher, Mrs. Avery.  “There’s something happening under the bleachers!” But the teacher cannot hear very well and does not follow up. In minutes, the police are there, sirens and flashing lights….it has all happened so quickly. The disabled girl is rescued by the police from a boy who was attempting to abuse her.

When the story hits the newspapers, the guidance counsellor, Mrs. Sadiq, orders Emily to meet with her. Emily attempts to defend herself, stating that she remembers trying to tell Mrs. Avery. “So why didn’t you do more?” Mrs. Sadiq harshly demands, dismissing Emily’s own trauma. (p.30) The counsellor tells Emily that she is considering to what degree Emily is culpable and that she must then report to a disciplinary committee to defend herself.

Emily’s punishment is community service. She is to spend time with a disabled group of students who are learning about dating and romance. At times the language is suggestive and vulgar and the issues sensitive. The plot of the story jumps around rather unpredictably at this point, with Emily subsequently developing a romantic relationship with the other leader of the disabled group.

Emily recalls afterwards that she froze at the time of witnessing the incident, probably afraid of the boy whom she eventually identifies as a well-known trouble-maker known to have dabbled in drugs. In hindsight, when Emily can think clearly, she is able to see what she could have done – but is it reasonable to expect her to have figured that out under the circumstances? She is presumed guilty for not speaking up, for not having the presence of mind to make an adult decision about what to do in a dangerous situation.

“What about the police and teachers who were at the game?” a reader might ask. Why weren’t they patrolling?  Why did Belinda’s parents allow her to go to the game alone – they must have known she was vulnerable? The offending boy was known by all teaching authorities to have been on drugs in the past. Why was he allowed to roam freely at a school event?  Emily is a scapegoat.

How far and under what circumstances is an innocent bystander “guilty as charged”? 

Emily quickly descends into self-blame and feels guilty and responsible for the incident. She develops a gloomy self-view in which she can no longer appreciate her participation in the anti-violence group, nor see anything redeemable or forgivable in herself, but instead feels physically sick when thinking back on her work in the white ribbon movement.

The author is sending a message to young people that they are bad if they make a mistake.

What is the lesson here really?  That young people should speak up?  No. The more likely scenario is that if they see something and do not know what to do, they will not report it at all out of fear of being labeled or punished.

Jane worked as a children’s and reference librarian for 14 years. She has a B.A. and a Grad Dip Library and Information Studies from Melbourne University.