The woman known as “Emily Doe” taped her drawing of two bicycles above her bed. It reminds her of the strangers who came to embody protection — the pair of cycling Stanford University graduate students who stopped her sexual assault.
“There are heroes in this story,” the 23-year-old woman wrote in an impact statement that went viral after she read it aloud last week in court. “We are looking out for one another.”
That’s a sentiment hundreds of schools are hoping will drive more of their students to take action, and they’re teaching them exactly how to do it. Nationwide, more campuses are providing students with lessons in “bystander intervention,” a strategy that encourages everyone to step in and stop such attacks, ideally before they happen.
American colleges began formal efforts to curb assaults in the 1990s, focused on two dominant strategies: Teach men not to rape, and teach women to avoid rape. Over the past decade, however, that message has expanded to target observers.
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Stanford doesn’t require its graduate students to go through its sexual assault program, which includes bystander intervention training. But two have become the latest high-profile examples of the philosophy in action.
One night in January 2015, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, both from Sweden, skidded to a stop when they spotted a man on top of a half-naked woman behind a dumpster. The cyclists pedaled closer and realized she was unconscious. Arndt recalls asking, “What the hell are you doing?”
The man took off running. Arndt and Jonsson chased him, pinned him to the ground and called the police. The assailant was later identified as Brock Turner, then a freshman at the school and an All-American swimmer. He was found guilty of three charges related to sexual assault in March and sentenced last week to six months in county jail, followed by three years’ probation.
Arndt and Jonsson’s citizen arrest is bystander intervention at its most extreme, and educators understand not everyone who observes trouble will have the muscle of two men. So college programs are recommending actions most students can take.
Green Dot first aims to teach students how to identify strange behavior, the smaller warning signs.
Among those programs is Green Dot, a growing national campaign that was started six years ago to stop campus rape through bystander intervention. Dorothy Edwards, a former director of the University of Kentucky’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, wrote the curriculum that about 300 colleges have since adopted, including Harvard University, the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University.
Green Dot first aims to teach students how to identify strange behavior, the smaller warning signs. If they see a man leading a stumbling woman into a room, for example, why not ask, “Is that your boyfriend?” If they see someone start to pass out at a house party, they’re advised to call the person a cab.
Students, instructed to place their own safety first, follow the “Three Ds” — direct, delegate or distract.
In Doe’s case, Arndt and Jonsson took the direct approach: They broke up a sexual assault and tackled the assailant. Individuals with less brawn might elect to “delegate,” or call for help. The “distract” route more generally applies to situations before they’ve escalated. A partygoer, for example, could tell a man feeding shots to a word-slurring woman that his car is being towed. Another could walk the intoxicated woman home.
When you tell people to help, you’re tapping into the best of humanity. People want to be part of the solution.
Dorothy Edwards, author of Green Dot curriculum
The program builds on other national efforts. Bringing in the Bystander started at the University of New Hampshire in 2002 and operates today at about 600 campuses, organizers say. Mentors in Violence Prevention, created in 1993 by Jackson Katz at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has spread to 250 college athletic programs. In 2014, President Obama launched a bystander intervention campaign called It’s On Us, which, according to the White House, asks men and women “to make a personal commitment to step off the sidelines and be part of the solution to campus sexual assault.”
“Bystanders are spreading like wildfire,” Edwards said of people who subscribe to the philosophy. “When you tell people to help, you’re tapping into the best of humanity. People want to be part of the solution.”
Stanford offers its own sexual assault education, which includes bystander intervention training, a spokesperson said. The program is mandatory for undergraduates and, starting this fall, graduate students will be required to complete it.
Emily Doe’s story could have ended differently, Edwards said. Arndt and Jonsson could have dismissed the sight as just another sloppy hook-up. A victim might have missed prompt medical attention. A predator might’ve gotten away to strike again.
“People think, ‘Hey, if you’re a good person, you’ll do something,’” Edwards said. “In reality, it’s not that simple. Even if we want to act, we sometimes don’t. We might be worried about getting into a dangerous situation. We might be embarrassed. We might figure someone else will handle it.”
How effective the programs have been in preventing sexual assault is empirically unknown, although advocates say they’ve heard stories from students who’ve gone on to help a peer.
Researchers who seek to measure the effect of bystander intervention training look for changes in a program recipient’s behavior. In addition to taking action to potentially thwart a crime, they might have learned not to commit the predatory actions they were taught to foil.
In a 2014 study of Green Dot’s impact funded by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, Ann Coker of the University of Kentucky surveyed more than 80,000 high school students. Over a five-year period, half received the bystander intervention training. She asked them to anonymously answer whether they’d ever done something consistent with rape (“Have you had sexual activities with another high school student because she/he was drunk or on drugs?”). Those who’d received the training reported about 50 percent less “perpetration,” Coker found, than those who’d never taken a course.
John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor who has led campus anti-rape efforts since 1993, discovered a similar shift among freshman fraternity brothers in a 2007 study. He also asked “trick questions” in anonymous surveys, including: Have you attempted to insert your penis into a woman’s vagina when she didn’t want you to?
“They wouldn’t necessarily define their behavior as rape,” he said, “when in fact that’s what it was.”
Previous research found that 8 percent of fraternity brothers had admitted to committing a sexually coercive act. Among the men in Foubert’s sample who’d received bystander intervention training, 6 percent reported the same, compared to 10 percent of those who did not take a class.
Such behavioral changes didn’t emerge in evaluations until after Foubert added bystander invention to his sexual assault prevention programs, he said.
“Part of it is the way people listen to a message,” Foubert said. “If you talk to a group of men about sexual assault, they might be worried they’ll be blamed for the problem, that it’s another finger-wagging lecture. But if you tell them they can help, they’re more likely to listen.”