It could mean stepping in to keep a drunk woman from being whisked away from a party, calling over a bouncer or creating a noisy distraction at a bar, or just letting someone know that a rape joke isn’t funny.
So-called bystander intervention tactics are emerging as a preferred strategy as colleges across the country look for ways to strengthen sexual assault prevention efforts.
It may seem like common sense to intervene — do something, say something — when a dangerous or potentially harmful situation presents itself. But stepping in, even subtly, can be tricky, particularly in unfamiliar situations, such as those arising at parties during freshman year.
Police say such involvement was lacking in two incidents in dormitories at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., and William Paterson University in Wayne last month that led to sexual assault charges.
In both cases, two men were charged with sexually assaulting a female student while three bystanders were accused by police of aiding and abetting the attack.
“It’s fair to say that people watched the event occur and didn’t intercede,” Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli said of the Ramapo attack, in which another female student was among those charged with invasion of privacy and failure to render aid.
Ramapo President Peter Mercer said the lack of intervention was “distressing” despite the college’s emphasis on teaching bystanders to step forward.
He has promised a full review of the school’s policies and procedures on sexual violence, as has William Paterson University President Kathleen Waldron.
Similar efforts are taking place nationwide as schools, pushed by the government, attempt to strengthen sexual assault prevention and response.
The efforts are many — seminars, social media campaigns, pledges, surveys, new legal requirements and more — and largely unproven. They seek nothing short of changing a culture in which it is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 students is sexually assaulted. Although the 1 in 5 figure has become a rallying cry for those seeking to change the culture, critics have complained that the definition of sexual assault in the survey that led to that figure is too broad and the sample size too small to be reliable.
Regardless of the scope of the problem, some experts believe that bystander intervention is the most effective strategy for stanching it.
“If you look at bystander intervention, the beauty of it is it puts the responsibility in the community,” said Ruth Ann Koenick, director of the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers University.
The concept requires a fundamental shift, however, one that recent assaults may show still has a way to go.
Many programs, like the one at Rutgers, have employed role playing and interactive skits to help students practice how they would react in different situations.
Navigating the social scene can be difficult, particularly for young adults who may be unsure of their own role on campus and in the world. What if you walk into a room and don’t know the circumstances? What if you’re afraid for your own safety? What if people you know assure you that everything’s cool?
“We want people to intervene in a safe way,” said Jane Stapleton, director of prevention innovation at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s probably most effective when they feel comfortable enough in a social situation … so it’s more difficult in a new social setting.”
Experts stress that intervention can take many forms, and caution students to respond in ways that feel safe and appropriate. It’s a misconception, they say, to think that intervention always means physically stepping into the middle of a situation.
Often the best intervention involves delegating: calling over a bouncer or bartender or someone who may have more clout, experts say.
All first-year and transfer students at Ramapo are required to watch a presentation and take part in a discussion of how a critical mass of students can change the culture when it comes to sexual violence. The school also hosts workshops and violence awareness weeks.
At William Paterson, all freshmen are required to participate in a nationally recognized bystander intervention program. The 90-minute show is made up of vignettes that portray real-world examples of sexual violence, harassment and stalking. Educators talk about what bystander intervention means and how to do it safely.
At Fairleigh Dickinson University, student athletes are taking pledges to intervene in situations where consent to sex “has not or cannot be given” as part of the national “It’s on Us” initiative.
Incoming students at the school’s campuses in Bergen and Morris counties view a skit about consent in sexual encounters and a video on bystander intervention in threatening situations. They attend discussions on sexual violence and, beginning next semester, will be required to complete a 20-minute interactive training program online.
Experts caution that training needs to be more than a “one-shot deal at orientation” and concede that promoting the cultural change needed for safer campuses is difficult.
“These issues that have been around for a very long time,” said Rutgers’ Koenick. “It’s very complex. If it wasn’t, we would have solved these problems along time ago.”