Bystanders key to curbing college sexual assaults

New program focuses on power of peer influence

It’s a common scenario at college parties: a clearly intoxicated student is taken to a private room or out to a car by someone he or she may barely know — while onlookers do nothing. Those student observers may think it’s none of their business or may not want to become involved, but advocates nationally are suggesting that bystanders hold the key to reducing sexual assault on campuses.

Last April, WUSTL adopted “Green Dot,” a national program that capitalizes on the power of peer influence to prevent sexual violence, intimate partner violence and stalking violence on college campuses. According to Kim Webb, assistant director for sexual assault and community health services, WUSTL is “ahead of the curve” by training students in this new approach to high-risk situations.

Leading researchers in the areas of domestic and sexual abuse Victoria Banyard, PhD, of the University of New Hampshire, and Bonnie Fisher, PhD, of the University of Cincinnati, agree that bystander intervention programs show promise. WUSTL and American University are collaborating with Fisher to evaluate Green Dot on both campuses.


Webb says the university selected Green Dot for its simple, direct approach and basic philosophy that individuals can do tangible things to elicit change in their environment.

Targeted primarily to college freshmen, the six-hour training program helps students recognize the signs and symptoms of sexual violence. Nearly 100 WUSTL students have completed the training.

Legislation pending before the U.S. Congress would require all colleges and universities to offer prevention and awareness programming for incoming students and new employees. Known as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, the federal legislation recommends the implementation of bystander intervention programs to protect college students from sexual assault.

A new definition of rape

Just this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation changed its definition of rape for the first time since 1929. The updated definition includes non-forcible rape and also recognizes male victims.

Webb says these are welcome changes on college campuses where most acts of sexual violence are not carried out by force. “Often these incidents occur when someone is inebriated, blacks out and doesn’t have the coherence to say no,” she says.

Rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses. Nationally, one in four women and one out of 33 men will be a victim of attempted or completed rape during college. WUSTL’s statistics correlate with the national averages.

As Webb explains, college campuses have rolled out various awareness campaigns over the past two decades with little measurable result. Many such initiatives did not effectively address the typical campus sexual assault scenario.

These earlier campaigns suggested women carry mace, watch over their drinks and never walk alone on campus. Women were taught self-defense as a means of thwarting their attackers. (Later campaigns were directed at men as they represent more than 90 percent of perpetrators. However, there still was no appreciable change to statistics.)

“Self-defense programs are wonderful confidence-builders, but they are not realistic rape prevention programs as they focus on a stranger jumping out of the bushes,” Webb says. “The typical situation on campus involves acquaintances, alcohol and incapacitation.

“Awareness campaigns have their place and can have merit,” Webb continues, “but awareness education is not the same thing as prevention education and many awareness campaigns place all the responsibility on the victim to change the situation.”

By contrast, Webb says, bystander intervention makes sexual violence a “community issue.”

Red dots vs. green dots

In the program, red dots are defined as any violent or potentially violent behavior — rape, an offensive word, a shove. A green dot is any behavior, choice, word or attitude that promotes safety and communicates intolerance for violence. Training materials ask students to imagine a map filled with red dots and urge them not to be apathetic, but to consider how green dots can make a difference, outshining and displacing the red dots.

The program focuses on the idea that there is almost always a bystander who might be able to disrupt behavior or advocate on behalf of an alcohol-impaired classmate.

Green Dot doesn’t suggest students put themselves directly in the middle of a violent situation; safety is first and foremost for all involved. Rather, it suggests students be alert to situations developing around them, take personal accountability for those situations and creatively problem-solve ways in which they might be able to alter the outcome.

During training, students watch a variety of high-risk situations unfold in videos.

To further foster the discussion, students use handheld clickers to anonymously answer questions about personal experiences and group results are tabulated in bar graphs onscreen.

Using role-playing, the students create their own high-risk scenarios and intervention strategies. Webb says it’s especially important that students think about situations that might actually play out on campus. She notes that students today face unique challenges, particularly in the ever-growing landscape of social media, which has raised the stakes of bullying and stalking.

Three types of intervention

The program advocates three primary types of intervention: delegating (alerting the police or other responsible parties); direct intervention (pulling the victim or perpetrator out of the situation, offering him/her a ride home, etc.); and distracting (getting the potential perpetrator to focus on something else).

Webb says a simple interruption may be all it takes to prevent a terrible outcome.

As one video portrays, students at a party notice a male leading an inebriated female to an upstairs bedroom. Several of the students strike up a conversation with the male, confusing and distracting him, while others lead the female to safety.

This video, used in the training program, illustrates how bystanders can influence the outcome of a potentially high-risk situation.

“One example we use is telling the perpetrator that his car might be getting towed,” Webb says. “We urge students to create any type of distraction — spilling a beer on the person, dropping a glass. A loud noise can be enough to change the climate.

“It’s fun to watch the students take the idea and run with it. They suggest all sorts of distractions — being a clown, dancing wildly. It helps them feel empowered. They realize this is something they can do. Or we urge them to delegate, instead of walking away. Talk to the bartender if you see someone making a decision they would not make in a sober state.”

‘A ripple effect’

While she willingly offers the training program to any group, Webb focuses on freshmen, who may not recognize “danger signs, predatory behavior and how alcohol can be used as a tool.” Often, freshmen may be the most reticent to speak out. “This is such a small community. Freshmen, in particular, don’t want to be the ones to be ostracized. They want to fit in and often aren’t going to rock the boat,” she says.

Webb recognizes, however, that codes of silence can exist in any living community. “For a new frat brother, there may be huge social consequences to calling out a fellow member,” she says.

But, Webb hopes that by specifically targeting freshman leaders — students who can live the example and influence peers — her efforts will have a ripple effect. By catching students early, there is greater potential that they will effect change during the next four years.

“We tell them, ‘You’re one person. We’re not asking you to do everything. We’re asking you to do something.’”

For more information about the program, contact Webb at (314) 935-8761;

Webb provides 24/7 crisis response for people who have been victimized — getting them to a hospital, talking over options, explaining the 120-hour window for forensic evidence, making referrals for ongoing counseling, expediting changes to housing or academic schedules if desired and helping to navigate the internal judicial process or criminal prosecution.

“Here we want to make them feel safe,” she says. “There is no judgment and no pressure to respond in a particular way to victimization. It’s important they regain the sense of control that’s been taken from them.”