Student-organized forums about strengthening sexual assault prevention strategies on college campuses, focused on bystander intervention training.
Problems and Purpose
A course on dialogue and deliberation organized a campus forum for Santa Clara University (SCU) students to give their input on designing bystander intervention training to prevent sexual assault on campus. The forum informed leaders of the campus Violence Prevention Program.
Background History and Context
Amidst growing national attention to sexual assault prevention on campuses, SCU had recently committed itself to “a zero tolerance policy for gender-based discrimination and sexual misconduct,” including sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. The University’s Violence Prevention Program had formed a committee of faculty, staff, and students to design a bystander intervention program to transform the campus culture and prevent sexual misconduct.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The forums were organized as a whole-class project in a course on Dialogue and Deliberation, and sponsored by the Communication Department. SCU’s Violence Prevention Program (VPP) served as the lead advisor on the project, providing background information, definitions of key terms and policies, and bystander intervention training to the class.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants were recruited via:
- Flyers and social media invitations, especially to members of fraternities, sororities, sports teams, clubs, residence halls, friends and housemates.
- Requests to professors in Women’s and Gender Studies and Communication to inform their students about the forum.
- Requests to the project’s Advisory Board of campus and student leaders to reach out to students in their networks.
Given the sensitivity of the topic, the pre-registration form gave students the option to speak in a female-only group, a male-only group, an LGBTQ-only group, or a mixed group. Almost all students chose to speak in a mixed group. Over 40 students participated in the discussions.
Methods and Tools Used
The 90 minute forum employed a modified version of the National Issues Forum format, which was chosen because it is widely-used for engaging people who do not know each other beforehand in deliberation. The format includes an opening presentation on the issue, small group discussions focused on several approaches to addressing the problem outlined in an issue guide, a summary of top recommendations that emerged in the small groups, and a closing survey for participants to offer their individual assessments of the proposals and their evaluation of the forum itself.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
An opening presentation, given by a male and a female student organizer:
- Described the purpose of the forum.
- Informed participants that if they became upset in discussing sexual assault, they were welcome to take a break or speak with a trained counselor who was present in the room.
- Defined key terms: Sexual misconduct (sexual violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment), sexual assault and rape, consent, force, coercion, incapacitation, and bystander intervention.
- Engaged students in a brief activity in which they were asked to stand if they had been affected in different ways by this issue (such as intervening to help a friend who was uncomfortable or in danger, or needing a bystander’s help themselves).
- Offered statistical information on the frequency of sexual assaults on college campuses, and groups of people who are especially at risk of being assaulted or perpetrating assaults.
- Introduced bystander intervention training and three steps to help someone in need: direct intervention to stop assault, delegating the task to an authority, and distracting the potential perpetrator without confrontation.
- Asked participants to accept several communication agreements about how to speak, listen, practice confidentiality, and care for oneself and others during the forum.
Facilitators then led small groups of 5-7 participants at round tables to discuss:
- How the issue affected their lives, including the values that would motivate them to intervene, the barriers to doing so, how participants and people they know already practice intervention, and scenarios that would be most realistic to include in bystander intervention trainings.
- What we can do, including training and programming that would be most effective for students, the pros and cons of several proposed steps the university might take, and incentives that would motivate students to get bystander intervention training.
- Whether the group found any common ground, including on proposed steps that SCU might take and ways in which participants could practice intervention themselves.
At the end of the forum, student note takers summarized each group’s top recommendations for a bystander intervention program for the full forum. Students then filled out a survey on their phone or on paper to evaluate the proposals presented and how the forum was conducted.
Student organizers facilitated all discussions and took notes on participants’ comments, without attribution. Students were trained to facilitate by exploring deliberation strategies and role-playing scenarios during class in the weeks leading up to the forum. The facilitators guided discussions, encouraging students to consider all perspectives, and enforcing the communication agreements.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After analyzing the surveys and evaluating the forum in the attached report, students in the course presented their findings at a meeting with leaders from the campus Violence Prevention Program and Office of Student Life, who drew on student input to plan steps to expand the bystander intervention training program.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The attached report made multiple findings and recommendations.
- Definitions of terms: When asked what was most memorable about the opening presentation, students mentioned statistics regarding the frequency of sexual assault, not the definitions of types of sexual misconduct, which are complex. A bystander intervention program may need to devote more attention, and repeatedly over time, to teaching definitions of sexual misconduct, which are not straightforward for students.
- Motives to intervene: Students felt that promoting safety, respect, and accountability were their strongest motives to step in and prevent sexual misconduct, followed by building community, practicing friendship, and promoting trust. A bystander program may want to experiment with explicit appeals to multiple values that would encourage intervention. Perhaps the “Three Ds” might be supplemented by “Three Vs” for the values that can motivate students to act.
- Barriers to intervening: The most-frequently mentioned barriers were identifying an ambiguous interaction as a potential assault, fear of harming the reputations of everyone involved, confronting friends involved in potential misconduct, and the role of alcohol. A bystander intervention program might distinguish the clearest signs of a potential assault (red alerts, which require immediate intervention) from warning signs that an assault may be developing (yellow alerts, which need to be monitored). Or it might encourage students to err on the side of intervening in any ambiguous situation and suggest particular kinds of interventions that are best-suited to these situations. Training should also reframe intervention as an act of loyalty to friends and groups to which students belong, which prevents them from harming themselves as well as others.
- The Three Ds: When asked how they already practice bystander intervention, many students provided examples that fell under the categories of direct intervention and distraction. At the end of the forum, when asked which of the Three Ds students would be most likely to use in the future, there was an increase in the amount of students who would be likely to choose delegation and distraction. It may be that students are less aware of how to delegate and distract, and welcome these less-confrontational ways of intervening. A bystander intervention program might especially help students develop these skills, especially for use in ambiguous situations.
- Training scenarios: Students said that intervention trainings should include scenarios involving new acquaintances and unfamiliar people at parties and bars, friends, and potentially ambiguous situations. Without reinforcing the myth that strangers perpetrate most assaults, trainings might include scenarios involving people who have just met each other. Scenarios that can clarify whether, when, and how to intervene in ambiguous situations would also be helpful, as well as how to intervene when a potential perpetrator is a friend.
- Mandatory training: Students were asked to evaluate proposals for requiring intervention training in several different formats. Most participants thought incorporating training in summer orientation would be effective, although some students may not be fully attentive or retain all of the training at the start of the school year. Most students also supported annual training to reinforce learning over time, but noted that it would require significant resources. Training for course credit was the most popular of the three options for mandatory training given on the issue guide, mainly because it would give students a strong incentive to learn and require extended attention to the issue, although it may present scheduling challenges.
- Tailored training: Participants were also asked to consider developing distinct trainings for males and females, and for specific groups such as fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, and the LGBTQ community. Responses were divided, suggesting that a bystander intervention program should gauge student interest in same-gender or group-specific training more widely before investing time in developing that training. In addition, it may be that these kinds of tailored trainings should be optional, not required, to avoid participants feeling stigmatized as potential perpetrators or victims.
- Party patrols: On the whole, most students saw more negatives than positives in a proposal to form student-led “party patrols.” While participants saw some value in having students escort their peers home from parties, they worried that having patrols inside parties would unintentionally absolve other students from their responsibility to intervene.
- Social media: Most students were not optimistic about the prospects for reinforcing training through social media and e-mail. This topic may require traditional, face-to-face communication to command students’ attention and convey the gravity of the issue.
- New proposals: Participants generated over two dozen additional proposals for training and raising awareness through student-led discussions, courses and formal trainings, campus programming and media, and other steps to promote safety (see pp. 14-16).
- Future Engagement of Students: The report also offered recommendations for future consultations of students about the design of the program and for bystander intervention trainings (see the attached report).
 Santa Clara University, Gender-Based Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct Policy (Santa Clara: Santa Clara University, 2015), https://www.scu.edu/media/jst/student-life/documents/GenderBasedDiscriminationandSexualMisconductPolicyPublication.pdf.