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W&L’s Bystander Programs Educate to Prevent Violence, Alcohol Abuse

The programs go by various names. Green Dot. Red Flag. Some don’t have a name yet. They all share one important trait, however: the education of bystanders about when, and how, to intervene and therefore prevent sexual violence and alcohol abuse in the Washington and Lee community.

“Bystander education is an important part of our development as a community,” said Sidney Evans, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “It equips us with tools to help others when they may not be in a position to help themselves. It teaches us how to become involved in a meaningful and effective way, and in a way that works for us as individuals.

”From orientation programs for the entering class to work with Greek organizations and varsity athletic teams,” said Evans, “the bystander model has become a key part of the educational efforts that the W&L Office of Health Promotion operates.”

“We have shifted a lot of our thinking and programming to the bystander model,” said Jan Kaufman, director of health promotion at W&L. “The bottom line is helping members of the campus community understand that part of their responsibility as a community member is to look out for their friends.”

Kaufman said that the University’s shift to bystander education was spurred by Green Dot, a national program based at the University of Kentucky. Green Dot operates on the notion that “No one has to do everything. Everyone has to do something.”

A Green Dot represents a moment when a student chooses to dissuade sexual violence. It is, for example, pulling a friend out of a high-risk situation, organizing Green Dot training for one’s student group, posting something about one’s commitment to the program on Facebook, or writing a class paper on violence prevention.

The opposite symbol, a red dot, represents the tolerance of violence in any way. The program asks participants to visualize a computer-generated map covered in red dots, each one representing an individual case of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking or an individual’s decision to do nothing in the face of a high-risk situation. The program’s goal is to replace the red dots with Green Dots. Since the program was established at W&L in 2010, Green Dots have been showing up all over campus— from Facebook statuses to e-mail signatures to lacrosse helmets. The men’s lacrosse team, in fact, became the first varsity athletic team in the country to receive Green Dot training, and the men’s swimming team has recently followed.

“We’re trying to shift community norms from a culture of inaction against sexual violence to one where students are active in preventing the escalation of a situation where someone could be hurt,” said Jennifer Sayre, director of training and development for the national Green Dot organization and a former counselor at W&L. “Just based on the numbers, we should be really close by the end of this year to reaching a critical mass that the diffusion-of-innovation theory tells us we need for the diffusion to become inevitable. If you get enough people in your community to learn the new behavior, then that behavior will become the new behavioral norm. It’s a community mobilization strategy.”

Sayre considers W&L a perfect place for the Green Dot program. “We’re a unique community in terms of how connected most folks are to community values, honor and trust,” she said. “But we’re certainly not immune to the problem of sexual violence experienced by colleges around the country. Nationally, statistics show that approximately one in four college women will be sexually assaulted. It’s been well studied in the literature and is consistent with findings from surveys at W&L.

“But we also know, statistically, that the folks who commit this kind of violence are a small percentage of the population. The vast majority are our allies on this issue and outnumber the people doing it by 20, 30, even 40 to 1.”

That, Sayre says, means that the bystanders are not acting because they may not know how to intervene in a situation. Green Dot seeks to change that.

Since the program’s inception at W&L, 35 percent of the undergraduate student body has heard an overview talk, and 185 students have received the full, six-hour Green Dot training.

“Most students understand what a Green Dot is, and I think it has very much become a part of the culture at W&L,” said junior Jack Apgar, a member of the lacrosse team.

“The men’s lacrosse team is invested in finding ways to make a difference in our community,” said head coach Gene McCabe. “This seemed like the perfect way for us to do that. This is a small campus, and our guys are helping make the Green Dot program more visible. I think the word’s getting out.”

Only two weeks after the team heard the overview, lacrosse player Brian (Mac) Means and his friend Jack Switala, both juniors, extracted a female student from a situation they recognized as high risk. “They hadn’t had the full training yet, but a potentially bad situation was averted,” said Sayre. “When Mac went to the next lacrosse team meeting, he was invited to share the story. When he finished, they gave him a standing ovation.”

As Sayre observed, data show that it is difficult for individuals to do or say something when it might result in a group to which they belong ostracizing them. “But if the group, as a whole, chooses to say that Green Dot is one of its values, it’s a lot easier because all your friends are doing it too,” she said.

“The training gives you a sense of confidence that you know you’re doing the right thing,” said senior Bryan Stuke. “You’ve been taught by qualified and dedicated people. All the solutions they offer are incredibly pragmatic and doable. You don’t necessarily have to get in someone’s face and cause some sort of confrontation. You can distract them from the situation or delegate responsibility to someone of higher authority—there are a number of resources at Washington and Lee to do that.”

W&L students have also embraced the Red Flag Campaign, which promotes the prevention of dating violence on college campuses by encouraging friends and other campus community members to say something when they see warning signs (“red flags”) of dating violence in a friend’s relationship.

“Where Green Dot is an active program that requires students to come to a training session and engage in dialogue, Red Flag is a more passive awareness campaign,” said Kaufman. “Through posters, the presence of red flags, public service announcements on the radio and other promotional activities, we get the message out.”

While both Green Dot and Red Flag primarily focus on sexual misconduct, Kaufman said that bystander education is now a staple of programs that her office offers for alcohol and mental health issues as well.

“We do a round of three programs for the entering class: one on alcohol, one on sexual misconduct and one on mental health. Some of those are conducted by peer advisers — that is, teams of students who are trained to provide information to the students — and others are conducted by professional staff,” she said. “In all cases now, there is a bystander-education component.”

Kaufman said that the anecdotal results of the new emphasis are positive, with students reporting about specific instances when they have stepped in or have witnessed someone else stepping in to help a friend.

“This approach makes sense for us on several levels,” she said. “We talk a lot about the values that we have as an institution and how it’s part of everyone’s responsibility to look out for members of the community.”