Third parties play key role in sexual assault prevention

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Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 9:25 pm | Updated: 10:18 pm, Wed Feb 19, 2014.

Anna Clements has mixed feelings about partying at college.

“I don’t want to miss out on what everyone says is the fun part of college, but I’ve heard some pretty scary stories about what happens to students who drink at parties,” Clements, a freshman prepharmacy major, said.

As education about sexual assault has increased on college campuses through organizations that provide college sexual assault services, rally for improved health centers and speak out against violence, there has also been a push to promote a new approach to sexual assault prevention: intervention from a third party, also known as bystander intervention. 

Mary Koch Ruiz, coordinator of Pitt’s Office of Sexual Assault Services, said  teaching students to not be passive bystanders is one approach Pitt uses to educate students about sexual assault and sexual assault prevention.

“I believe it is one of the most effective ways in which to teach students about the realities of sexual assault and create more awareness about the importance of stepping in and stopping aggressive behavior when necessary,” she said. 

According to Pitt’s 2012 Jeanne Clery Act statistics report, sexual assault is defined as nonconsensual, but nonforcible sexual intercourse. Forcible sexual offenses includes forcible rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, forcible fondling and sexual assault.

Pitt’s campus crime report stated that there were six reports of forcible sexual offenses that occurred on campus, one on noncampus property and three on public property in 2012.

Ruiz explained that the Office of Sexual Assault Services, which is part of the Counseling Center, develops and disseminates educational information throughout campus about sexual assault and how to prevent it.

In addition, Ruiz said that peer educators are trained to present programs on sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.

“Specific programming is provided for all first-year and transfer students. The programs involve the use of skits, role plays, videos and interactive discussions,” she said. “Bystander prevention approaches are included in the prevention curriculum.”

According to Ruiz, peer educators work to make themselves available to students in residence halls, to sorority and fraternity chapters and as requested by other campus groups. 

“The peer educators also help to facilitate programs and events for Domestic Violence Awareness Week and Sexual Assault Awareness Week,” Ruiz said.

At Carnegie Mellon University, faculty members have taken a similar approach to combating sexual assault.

Jessica Klein, coordinator of Gender Programs and Sexual Violence Prevention at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that bystander intervention is one of the best tactics.

“We do not have a separate bystander intervention program at CMU, but there is a bystander component in training [our students]. Our training is centered around individuals being an active change,” Klein said. 

Klein said she believes that to make an “active change” in their community, students have to step in and help when they notice a situation that doesn’t seem right, rather than just stand by. 

Klein has only been a part of the Sexual Assault Services at CMU for seven months, but she has already brought forth important changes. 

“We strive for a healthy balance in students when it comes to sexuality,” she said. “For me, I think that teaching students critically about how to prevent sexual assault in the first place, both for themselves and others, should be the main focus [of preventing sexual abuse].”

According to CMU’s annual Security and Fire Safety Report, there were five recorded forcible sexual offenses in 2008, but in 2012 there were 17.

Klein said that there has been a significant increase in sexual abuse reportings over the past six months at CMU not because there have been more cases, but because the University has become a safer place for women and men to disclose any sexual violence they have witnessed or experienced.

Klein said it is common for victims to be too intimidated to report abuse, which is why she believes that “education is a tool in itself” and that being an active bystander can make a sizable difference. 

Erin Case, president of the Campus Women’s Organization at Pitt, said that each fall, the organization holds a march for sexual awareness, and last year the group had a bystander intervention training session. 

“[Rape] is a heavy topic, so we don’t talk about it at every meeting. When we do address it, we put a feminist view on it,” Case said. “We talk about why women need to be represented. We talk about how far women still have to go.”

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