Bystander rape-prevention programs face questions
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Training programs around the country are trying to teach bystanders to stop sexual assault, and now is when they have to be especially alert. Campus sexual assault reports are so common at the beginning of the fall semester, college administrators call this time of year the “red zone.”
Penn State University sends campus-wide text alerts when someone has been sexually assaulted. During the last academic year, there were 29 campus text alerts about sexual assaults at the university’s main campus, and half of them were issued in the first ten weeks of school.
“Maybe that’s why you showed up today,” said Katie Tenny, as she ran a rape-prevention training session at the school earlier this year. “Maybe you’re tired of the text alerts, knowing that this is happening to people around you.”
Tenny is the leader of a program that seeks to teach people to do or say something to prevent a potential attack. It’s one of the hundreds of bystander intervention programs that have sprung up in recent years at universities, high schools and military bases, designed to involve whole communities in discouraging harassment and sexual assault.
Momentum for this good bystander movement has been building for several years, aided by some widely reported stories of heroic interventions. Though research is still evolving, studies so far suggest it is helping.
But now some assault victims and their advocates fear new obstacles, including a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that it would jettison rules that had pushed colleges and universities to be more aggressive about sexual assaults.
A bystander is present in about 30 percent of cases of rape, threat of rape or unwanted sexual contact, according to an Associated Press analysis of 24 years of data from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey. In just over one third of those cases the actions of the bystanders helped, often by scaring off the assailant in some way.
That happened last summer in Gainesville, Florida, when two bouncers at a club, one a linebacker at the University of Florida named Cristian Garcia, intervened when they found a man raping a woman in an alley behind the bar. The 19-year-old woman was extremely intoxicated, but said she did not know the man and had tried to push him away. Christopher Lee Shaw, 34, was later convicted of sexual battery and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Another widely-reported example occurred at Stanford University in January 2015, when two Swedish graduate students came across a man on top of an unconscious woman late one night behind a campus dumpster. Deciding something looked strange, the men, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, got off their bikes and walked over. Jonsson yelled at the man “What are you doing?” Arndt recalled in an interview with the AP.
The man ran. Jonsson tackled him and Arndt, who is 6-foot-2 inches and 210 pounds, sat on the suspect’s legs to help pin him down until police arrived.
At the sentencing of the assailant, Brock Turner, the victim, who was not identified, read a letter in court that praised Arndt and Jonsson. “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another,” she said.
Still, experts note many people may choose not to intervene in these kinds of situations, especially if they aren’t 6-foot 2, like Arndt, or play college football, like Garcia.
Even Arndt noted they decided to intervene while on a familiar path at a college campus they considered friendly and safe. It’s possible he might have hesitated to act if it had happened in a strange neighborhood, he said.
In large national survey of students at more than two dozen U.S. college campuses in 2015, 20 percent said they’d seen someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, but the most of them said they did nothing. When asked why not, about a quarter said they didn’t know what they could do.
A program called Green Dot, founded at the University of Kentucky about 10 years ago, teaches student leaders and others to identify potential sexual assaults and safely intervene to prevent them. The program has spread to hundreds of campuses, including Penn State, which calls its year-and-a-half-old Green Dot program “Stand for State.”
Tenny says there are a number of sometimes simple things people can do, like starting a conversation with a potential victim, or getting a friend to intervene.
These programs seem to work, but evidence is limited so far, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Authors of a CDC-funded study of 26 high schools in Kentucky published earlier this year saw just a small reduction in reports of students being harassed or attacked at schools that had the program. Still, the authors estimate 100 fewer incidents occurred each year at each high school with the program.
“Because this problem is so insidious and fairly common, even a small reduction could mean millions of people who are not experiencing sexual violence as a result,” said Sarah DeGue, a CDC scientist who worked on the study.
Some argue bystander training can be misguided, even if it does get results. Most participants in Green Dot trainings tend to be women. Some researchers say Green Dot programs’ main impact may be to help women be more aware of risk and prepare more — which is the same approach as the self-defense classes and rape whistles of 50 years ago, when responsibility for rape prevention was mainly put on the shoulders of potential victims.
“You’re not addressing potential assailants. You’re just saying; ‘If you see something, say something,’” said Anna Voremberg, managing director of End Rape on Campus, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
The bystander intervention movement took off during President Barack Obama’s administration, which took several steps to address long-standing concerns that sexual assaults were under-reported and poorly handled by police and prosecutors in many parts of the country.
Some advocates say the measures are the main reason on-campus sexual assault reports have been rising at Penn State and other colleges for several years. They don’t think rapes are becoming more common, but that more victims have become willing to come forward and report them.
“For me, that’s by far one of the biggest wins. People are trusting the system,” said Samantha Skaller, a recent Syracuse University graduate who led a rape-prevention campaign there.
But last month Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the guidance as unfair to men accused of sexual assault, scrapped it, and announced new instructions.
“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug,” DeVos said in a statement. “But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Activists said DeVos’s announcement represents a step backward for efforts to teach bystanders and others in the community to think differently about sexual assault. They found it especially troubling that the move came from the administration of Donald Trump, who was accused of sexual assault by several women, though never charged or convicted. Last fall, a recording from 2005 surfaced on which he was heard bragging that he could grab women and get away with it. He later dismissed it as “locker room talk.”
Sofie Karasek, a co-founder of End Rape on Campus, said in a statement that DeVos’s decision is an attempt “to protect those who ‘grab’ by the genitals and brag about it — and make college campuses a safer place for them.”
Still, experts say they believe the momentum for bystander programs will continue. The bystander movement was propelled by a 2013 federal law requiring colleges and universities to hold trainings for students and faculty in how to recognize and prevent sexual violence, and that law remains in place.
Penn State administrators say they will continue its bystander program, hoping both to prevent rapes and repair a reputation damaged by high-profile scandals in 2011 and 2015.
“People realize we need to get moving,” said Tenny, the “Stand for State” coordinator. “There are a lot of people getting hurt.”
AP data journalist Larry Fenn contributed from New York.