Meaningful Accountability Beyond a Lame “I’m Sorry”

Empowering others to combat bullying, harassment, and sexual assault is a cause I have been passionate about for many years now. Bullying was never something that I personally struggled with. As a kid growing up in Israel, I did not recall being bullied. However, during a visit to Israel last year, when I shared my most recent project with my childhood friend at dinner, she began to laugh and quickly corrected my misperception.


 “Do you remember when you first came to our school?” she asked. “Your family had just moved from Russia and some of the kids were making fun of your name, your clothes, and the way you spoke. The group of boys repeatedly mocked you until one of the boys tried to pull your shorts down in the sandbox. You kicked him away, he fell face-down and began crying as sand grains dripped from his face. After that, no one ever dared to pick on you. Don’t you remember?” 


I honestly had no recollection of the episode. I can count on my fingers the number of bullying incidents that I experienced as a kid. I believe that because I always stood up for myself, events did not leave a traumatic impact on me. Being confident and speaking up served me well through the years in stopping bullying or abuse. 


Today, many would consider my reaction an “effective” response since the bullying stopped. However, after years of researching and attaining an in-depth understanding of cultural diversity, closed communities, and different environments, I now believe an “effective” solution must include meaningful accountability. Offenders often believe that uttering a lame “I am sorry” would be sufficient. This might be true in situations when there is an innocent mistake,  accident, miscommunication, or misunderstanding. However, a lame “I am sorry” is not sufficient when the offensive behavior is malicious and deliberate to harm others. Bullying, sexual assault, and ganging up on someone are all deliberate with intent to harm others; therefore, the remedy must include an element of accountability where the offender takes responsibility to repair the pain to the victim’s satisfaction.        


Just casually saying “I’m sorry” does not have a lasting impact to transform the offender’s behavior or prevent the inappropriate behavior from occurring again.


Therefore, effective accountability must include a physical exchange to alter the bad behavior. A physical exchange has many variations depending on the severity of the incident or situation. These may range from a properly written apology to a constructive project where the bully remedies their behavior for the sake of themselves and the collective social good. The purpose of this is to not only deliver justice to the victim and restore trust, but also to help the bully understand the impact of their wrongdoing on others so that they will act responsibly in the future. In effect, everyone benefits with meaningful accountability and corrective measures. Trust and confidence are restored in each party involved, and this extends to the larger community.


To put this into perspective, let’s look at an incident that occurred in an elite school in San Diego. A 13 year old boy, Sean (not his real name), was taking pictures under girls’ skirts. Upskirt pictures are a criminal offense in California. However, when the girls reported the incident, the administration only required Sean to say “I’m sorry” to the girls who reported it. The administrators attempted to cover up this illegal incident to reduce their liability. In reality, this tactic increased their liability because they not only violated the school’s written bylaws and codes, but worse yet, they failed to adhere to state and federal laws. Potential litigation loomed over the school due to their failure to hold the boy properly accountable. At the end of the process, they issued a written apology letter regarding the mishandling of the issue, signalling that they were aware of their transgressions.  


Wouldn’t it have been easier to just hold the offender accountable from the onset? I requested the boy do a research project on the proper usage of phones to educate others. The school refused. The girls were distraught, traumatized, and angry. What message did it send to the boy? The inadequate response from the school breached trust and infused a toxic environment.     , a platform for medical professionals to share their experiences, explains that the intent of bullying is usually to show control, power, and superiority. Internationally renowned parenting coach Ronit Baras adds to this, claiming that most bullying has an element of “physical appearance,” meaning that the bully makes the offensive acts visible to people around them to show their power, control, and superiority over others. Therefore, in my opinion, accountability must include a “physical exchange” to address the “physical appearance.” The physical exchange component serves to ensure that there is accountability, the harm has been remedied, and there is balance between the offender and the victim. This step, in which victims receive a physical remedy in exchange for the physical harm created by the offender, is crucial to fully resolving the conflict. 


Accountability: Remedy with Physical Exchange


This is where a physical exchange comes in to remedy the situation. It serves to keep the bully humble and deter them from harming others. Meaningful accountability teaches the bully to take ownership of their mistakes, have compassion towards others, and alter their behavior when confronted with similar situations. 


If you are a victim of bullying, seek support to remedy the situation and remain unwavering in your fight for justice. Gain knowledge of the formal grievance processes, policies, and legal codes and rights to forge ahead and hold the bully accountable. Although it might be easier to remain silent and/or ignore harassment, know that this only allows the bully’s bad acts to escalate over time and hurt you more.  


Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Separate facts from opinions or feelings
  2. Extract the intent, injury, and impact on you and others in the environment  
  3. Research policies, state and federal codes, and the process of formal complaint   
  4. Report the bully to an authority with facts, highlighting the malicious intent and injury  
  5. Demand accountability beyond just a lame and insincere “I am sorry.” 
  6. Go through the proper channels until you get satisfactory outcomes   


Documenting the incidents and filing a formal grievance or complaint also puts the organization on notice. Every organization is obligated by law to protect its members and stakeholders from bullying, hostility, and harassment. Failing to hold offenders accountable exposes the organization to greater liability. Therefore, documenting and reporting the misconduct is an absolute must! 


Sometimes, organizations do not have the resources, know-how, or good intentions to properly resolve conflicts. If the leaders of the organization fail to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility, you may seek to influence them or use external tools to remedy the situation. We have developed diverse and effective tools to equip all stakeholders to act responsibly to resolve conflicts constructively. These effective tools range from peaceful and assertive to more aggressive strategies. Our proprietary tools include (but are not limited to): Show You CARE, Amend to Mend, Amuse to Diffuse, Challenge to Gain Knowledge, Notify to Rectify, Report to Authority, Equalize, Narrate to Calibrate, Get an Advocate, Shame to Reclaim, and many others. Click here to contact us and learn more!


One of the transformational tools we developed is an “Accountability Template,” which guides the offender to issue a sincere and authentic apology. It includes four simple components and must be done in writing. Writing is a physical act that helps the bully to reflect on, repair, and transform their weakness, fear, and insecurities.    


An authentic apology must be written and include: 

  1. Taking responsibility for their inappropriate action 
  2. Understanding the impact/injury of their misconduct    
  3. Offering ways to remedy the harm to the victim     
  4. Suggesting ways to address adversity in the future  


This physical exchange could be as simple as a properly written letter owning up to their mistakes, or it could be more advanced, like having them create and present a plan or a project about an issue related to their undesirable behavior. For more severe offenses, another option could be a community service project related to their transgression coupled with therapy or coaching. Whatever the course of action is, it must be transparent and known to all parties involved to deliver justice and help everyone learn from the situation. 


Conflict is inevitable; bullying is not! Teaching children to stand up for themselves and hold  others accountable helps them develop self-respect, confidence, and resilience. In order to do so, we must equip them with life skills to communicate assertively, make value based decisions, and act responsibly to achieve their goals and objectives.  


These skills are essential to children’s well-being and fostering healthy relationships.


Reach out to us for training, consulting, strategic planning, or requesting a download of the Accountability Template.   


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Full transparency is a solution to lack of accountability, and is key to building organizational trust.