Before an Assault: Why Colleges Need Bystander Intervention Training

By Diana K. Rocha Ramos, an UnidosUS Líderes Avanzando Fellow 

Over the last few years, individuals across the world have joined their voices to denounce sexual assault. By sharing their stories, they have shown solidarity with other victims, raised public awareness, and highlighted the challenges of obtaining justice, something legal systems rarely grant in these cases. But I believe we can all take steps to put an end to this crime. For my part, I’ve been working with faculty and staff at my school, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX to develop a curriculum for training bystanders to detect and deter gender-based violence.

I’m at a crucial age for doing so. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 20-25% of women and 15% of men have been raped in college and nearly two-thirds of college students have experienced some form of sexual harassment, but only about 10% ever report these incidents. And according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence program, women aged 18 to 24 are the most likely victims of sexual violence in America, representing 54% of the overall rate of reported sexual assaults.Curiously, women in this age group who aren’t enrolled in college experience higher rates than those who are—it’s four times the rate of women in general for non-students compared to three times the rate of women in general for those who are students. But these statistics are based on who reports.

Why We Need Bystander Intervention Training in Colleges and Universities

Many victims suffer multiple layers of grief and trauma because sexual assault and harassment cases are often chalked up to a “he-said, she-said” scenario in the eyes of authorities. Those authorities, and even friends and family may make the victim feel guilty by suggesting the person made a bad decision, such as how much they drank or what they were wearing. The victims may also fear retaliation for speaking up, something that can be especially scary in the context of one’s college experience. Even when legal action is taken, these trials rarely conclude with a guilty verdict for the perpetrator, and when they do, the sentences are often very light. And to muddy the waters even more, the U.S. Department of Education is considering an overhaul of Title IX, a 1972 law barring sexual discrimination and violence from schools receiving federal funding. Considering all the above, one can see why victims do not report their incidents, which makes it harder to track these crimes, crimes that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

College is a time of learning and exploration, greater independence, and increased social interaction. That should be a good thing, but it comes with both risks and opportunities. For starters, alcohol and drugs are quite common in college social settings, and those substances can render people incoherent or unconscious. As such, it’s important to remind students that sex with a person under the influence is not consensual, and even then, there are always a few who will take advantage of the situation. Unwanted sexual advances can also take the form of vulgar or threatening comments, or touch. Some will do this to test boundaries. Others will do this even after the victims has asked them to stop. All of the above merit a deeper conversation about appropriate behavior and how to step in if you, a third party, witness something inappropriate.

A Pilot Program

Bystander intervention training is one of the best ways college students can learn to recognize and positively influence their social environment. Bystanders have the power to step in and stop a sexual assault, but they have to recognize the signs, know a few good intervention strategies, and be instilled with the conviction that public safety is everyone’s business.

My university is one of many across the nation to introduce bystander intervention training. Ours is currently in the pilot stage where we are tailoring the program to meet our campus needs using feedback from St. Mary’s University student focus groups. The training model and materials come from Cordell’s University’s “INTERVENE” Bystander campaign, which consists of a 20-minute video and a 60-minute workshop. The film presents a variety of scenarios with young adults facing a distressful situation. Each scenario begins by showing the red flag of the situation, and then how the bystander takes a proactive approach and intervenes. After watching the video a facilitator uses a PowerPoint presentation to engage workshop participants in a discussion about the attitudes and behaviors presented in the video. This discussion focuses on identifying red flags, the role of relationship, the emotions of the bystander, and what actions to take in a given situation.

UnidosUS Líderes Avanzando Fellow Diana K. Rocha Ramos is coordinating a sexual harassment and assault bystander intervention program at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX.

I have been involved in the implementation of the bystander program at St. Mary’s University since September 2018, working alongside the university’s Department of Student Development and the project coordinator to customize it for our campus community. My initial task was to recruit a diverse group of students to participate in a focus group. I now serve as one of the facilitators conducting trainings for the focus groups and this spring semester’s pilot training.

Currently, I’m gathering detailed local statistics to add to our workshop. As a facilitator, I help the audience analyze and discuss safe, responsible ways to intervene. My fellowship with the UnidosUS has been crucial for the work I do with my university. Throughout my fellowship, I have improved my public speaking skills and research skills. Also, I have learned to view the issue through intersectional lenses, facilitating my ability to speak to diverse audiences.

Although the program is still undergoing customization, ideally the bystander intervention training will become mandatory for freshman and readily available for all St. Mary’s University students. While we need to gather more data, much of the feedback thus far has been positive, with many students in the focus groups saying they felt more comfortable intervening in uncomfortable or crisis situations after going through the training.

Sexual harassment and assault can take place in a myriad of circumstances so the strategies for preventing them can vary greatly, but college is a crucial time and place to instill better values and behavior in our society. These programs can help young adults stop or respond to crimes by developing the tools they need to be more aware, assertive, and supportive.

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