Bystander intervention: Anyone can intervene and make a difference

A woman sitting near you on a city bus is being harassed by a fellow passenger. She looks uncomfortable and seems frozen. Should you do something? If so, what?

Helping students know how to respond in such situations is the goal of a new bystander intervention program at MSU. A $38,000 one-year grant, awarded through the state of Michigan’s “Let’s End Campus Sexual Assault” initiative, made the program possible.

“Everyone is different and every situation is different,” said Leah Short, a social worker and MSU alumna who was hired to get the program off the ground. “If you see someone being harassed on a bus, responses could include telling the person to knock it off, or telling the bus driver. There is no perfect right way. We try to present a range of options and show that anyone can intervene, and anyone can make a difference.”

Indeed, the effectiveness of bystander intervention education has been backed up by several recent studies. It is one of the approaches recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its November 2016 report, “Sexual Violence on Campus: Strategies for Prevention.”

MSU’s new bystander intervention training will be offered to second-, third- and fourth-year students beginning this fall. Short has engaged students in creation of social media videos, posters and other materials to augment the training.

The training will build on MSU’s longstanding Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence (SARV) prevention workshops for freshmen and new transfer students. More than 36,000 students have participated in the mandatory SARV workshops since 2009.

The new training also builds on a previous $12,000 grant to MSU from the state of Michigan that funded a bystander intervention program for bartenders and taxi drivers in East Lansing. The MSU Police Department’s Special Victims Unit conducted that training last year.

“We didn’t feel like bartenders or cab drivers would necessarily know what to do if one of our students would have a problem out in the community,” said Kelly Schweda, director of MSU’s Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program. “We thought it was important to build a network of people in the community who can support our students.”

Schweda helped write the grant applications that made both the community and student bystander training programs possible.

In the new program, four specially trained peer educators will lead each bystander intervention training in an auditorium setting with about 100 participants.

An accompanying “tool kit” will be offered to area high schools, so that more future Spartans will arrive at MSU already knowing what they can do to help to keep the campus safe.

Schweda said the new grant helps ensure that sexual assault prevention remains on students’ radar throughout their time at MSU.

“Students take an online course on sexual assault prevention and participate in the SARV Prevention Program workshop during their first year at MSU. But we haven’t had anything to reinforce that learning in subsequent years,” Schweda said. “This helps bridge that gap.”

MSU is also rolling out new online courses for students in their second year and beyond.

For Short, developing the bystander training program has been a natural progression. As an undergraduate at MSU, she participated in a SARV Prevention Program workshop and became a SARV Prevention Program peer educator. She also was an intern at MSU Safe Place and a volunteer with MSU’s Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention Team. She went on to earn a master’s in social work at Loyola University Chicago after receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology and women and gender studies at MSU in 2013.

“The goal of bystander intervention programs is to help change our culture to make our campus a better place,” Short said. “If you haven’t thought ahead about what you can do if you witness a situation, you may not think you can do anything.

“We want people to know that just checking in with a person who is in a vulnerable situation, or distracting someone who is behaving inappropriately, can be really meaningful and impactful,” she said. “It can be as simple as asking ‘Are you okay?’ or turning up the lights or turning off the music.”