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Lessons in Bystander Intervention
ORLANDO -- If there is an obvious recurring theme at the second annual convention of SCOPE: School and College Organization for Prevention Educators, it's the potential of bystander intervention. The technique, in which students are trained to intervene in dangerous situations, is growing increasingly popular among student affairs professionals.
At the conference Friday, the topic of bystander intervention, which has been applied to a wide range of student issues including sexual assault, hazing, alcohol abuse and bullying, emerged in several sessions. But one approach in particular, an apparently uncommon one, sparked the interest of prevention educators.
As a graduate student at the University of Maine, Molly Schenck wrote and directed a "dance/theater/new media" performance exploring sexual assault and the impact of bystander intervention (which, as the play makes clear, only works when students are willing to speak up). The unconventional approach seems to have resonated with the audiences at the actual performance and at the conference session Friday, but especially with the cast and crew members who found themselves relating to assault victims in ways they never had.
"It's Not That Simple" premiered at Maine in 2008, and three years later Schenck resurrected it as her theater major's capstone research project, this time surveying the audience, cast and crew before and after the production to see how their reactions to and perceptions of sexual assault in real life might have changed.
The results were encouraging. The percentage of audience members who said they were likely to ask for verbal consent before sex, even if they were in long-term relationships with their partner, rose from about 60 percent to 80 percent. Asked if they would intervene to stop a physical assault, 85 percent answered in the affirmative after seeing the production, up 10 percentage points from before the showing. And the percentage who said they would report a friend who assaulted someone rose from 72 to 87 percent.
Of course, predicting actions before the fact is far different from measuring what happens in real-life scenarios. And many audience members also reported having gone through assault prevention training, likely raising their initial awareness levels.
Which is why the impact on the cast and crew is equally, if not more, impressive. Schenck was shocked when, days before the first performance, the students in the play (most of whom had little to no acting or dancing experience beforehand) seemed unusually quiet and disengaged. Eventually they admitted to having experienced repeated dreams and mental images -- "borderline nightmares" -- in which they themselves were transplanted into the play's scenarios. A woman dreamed she was being chased by an assailant. A man dreamed he was witnessing an assault but, when reaching out to intervene, his hands turned to sand.
"Now I feel I know better how to help a friend who has been a victim," one student said. Another reported being "much more prone" to check in on friends when they went out. One came to the realization that sexual assault is "something that is not always out of malice or cruelty." And many of them seemed optimistic that such an experience could help their peers better understand sexual assault, too.
"They finally were able to put a face to this story," said Schenck, who is now student success coordinator at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. She and the conference attendees agreed: the largely unexpected -- and perhaps most significant -- impact of her project was its potential to instill intervention habits into students who hadn't gone looking for them. To really drive the point home, Schenck had the cast repeat a few choice phrases throughout the play that she hopes will stick with them:
"What's going on here?"
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
The idea was supplying the students with open-ended, non-accusatory ways to intervene in a potentially dangerous situation without making assumptions, but giving friends a way out if they needed one.
Hopefully, Schenck said, those ideas would even translate to the audience members who weren't already trained in intervention.
In another bystander intervention session Friday, this one about the evolution and challenges of peer education in the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education (SHAPE) program at the United States Naval Academy, two midshipmen shared their experiences working to usher in a culture change that, while ostensibly improving, still has a long way to go.
The problem of sexual assault in the military branches is no secret. Nearly 30 percent of female veterans experience rape or attempted rape during their service (higher than the most commonly cited general estimate of one in four women), and according to the latest annual survey by the U.S. Department of Defense, there was an increase in sexual assault incidents among cadets and midshipmen at the military academies in 2010-11. (That report gave the Naval Academy props for its prevention program but said there were still "areas for improvement.")
And peer educators at the Naval Academy have more to overcome than just the culture. Often they are questioned by peers dismissive of the lessons because those teaching them aren't actually officers -- therefore, the argument goes, how would they know what to do in the face of harassment?
So, why do they do it, asked one convention attendee? What's the payoff?
"It's the personal satisfaction," midshipman Tyler Faris said.
His counterpart in the demonstration, midshipman Selina Benavides, recounted a moving story about one woman for whom she made a difference -- though ultimately, Benavides couldn't do enough.
She was giving her peer education spiel to a full room at the academy and noticed one woman sitting alone in the corner, who almost appeared to repel the others in the class. They moved away from her, clearly uncomfortable with her presence. After the presentation, the room cleared out, when one student approached Benavides. The other woman still sat in the corner.
"That bitch," the student said, had accused her friend of rape, and her friend was expelled because of it. Benavides didn't bat an eye.
"Oh, so you were in bed with them?" she asked. The student appeared taken aback, acknowledged that she wasn't, and after being told she could support her friend but shouldn't pass judgment without knowing all the facts, stormed out of the room. The woman in the corner burst into tears. "Thank you," she sobbed. She had been so shunned after the incident that she changed companies, but that didn't seem to help.
The woman ended up dropping out of the Naval Academy.
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