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In a 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recommended colleges and universities provide bystander education programs for their students in order to prevent sexual assault on college campuses.

Those recommendations became requirements in 2013 when President Obama signed the Campus SAVE Act into law. This legislation reframes sexual violence prevention from being an individual responsibility to one shared by all community members.

As a result, preventing campus sexual assault on college and university campuses has begun to consist of educating students, staff, and faculty about appropriate bystander behaviors. Instead of focusing solely on students as potential assailants or victims, administrators have begun empowering students to take a more active and positive role by modeling appropriate behaviors and interrupting rape-supportive activities before an event occurs. As many as one-third of sexual assaults occur with other people around during or right before they occur, which creates numerous opportunities for bystanders to intervene and prevent the assault. College bystander education programs typically focus on intervening in prosocial ways, speaking against norms that may perpetuate violence, and developing skills that enable a bystander to effectively intervene.

One particularly appealing aspect of these programs for college administrators is their potential to address the White House’s call for primary prevention programs to address sexual violence. Tertiary prevention usually focuses on post-crime reduction in recidivism, while primary prevention focuses on preventing crimes from ever occurring by creating environments where such incidents are less likely to occur.

Bystander education is theorized to help prevent sexual violence because it interrupts social norms that may be supportive of a rape culture. For example, researchers have found a positive correlation between campuses with male peers who supported sexual violence and the reported rates of sexual violence on those campuses. Other researchers have hypothesized that when students are silent and do not speak against attitudes that objectify women, the institution is perceived to be more supportive of sexual violence.  Given these findings, bystander intervention programs are perceived as a potential solution for campus sexual violence.

To help people develop an appropriate course of action, some researchers have categorized the behavior of bystanders with four D’s: direct, distract, delegate, and delay.

  • Direct approaches are more active and confrontational in nature, such as refusing to abandon a friend who has had too much to drink at a party or preventing an inebriated friend from being escorted into a bedroom.
  • Distracting the aggressor in a dangerous situation is another bystander strategy.  One example would be to simply change the topic of discussion if a group of people are making sexist comments.
  • Delegating specific tasks is another effective strategy that includes finding someone who can run with a friend to prevent isolated exercise in potentially secluded places or assigning a person to engage with a potential aggressor while someone else can focus on the potential victim.
  • Finally, although most bystander behavior occurs before an assault occurs, the final “D” in bystander intervention research refers to bystander interventions that are delayed because they happen after an assault occurs. These behaviors include calling the police, believing victims when they talk about their experience, or going with the victim who decides to make an official report of the incident so that it can be investigated.

As your student heads to college, there will be lots of programming about Bystander prevention programs, especially in the first six weeks of classes. Not only are these great opportunities to learn about experiencing a safe campus, but they are also a good networking opportunity to connect with the support offices on campus.

Dr. Neil Best has been working in Higher Ed for almost 20 years. He received his PhD from Azusa Pacific University in Higher Education and his dissertation explored on the campus climate predictors of sexual assault victimization. He has professional experience working in the areas of Equity and Compliance, Diversity and Inclusion, Residence Life, Student Engagement, Leadership Development, and Student Conduct. He currently serves as Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Civil Rights Investigator at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His research interests focus on student success and sexual violence prevention and he has taught classes on Student Success, Student Conduct, and Research Methods. In his free time, he loves exploring the great state of Alaska with his partner and three young daughters.