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When 'bystander intervention' works

At the US military academies, students report a decline in unwanted sexual contact. One possible reason is new training in 'bystander intervention,' or preventing an assault when a person nearby speaks up or takes action. A Pentagon report adds legitimacy to 'good Samaritan' training at educational institutions.

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    U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Md.
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A new report from the Pentagon reveals that the women and men at America’s military academies have experienced a decline in unwanted sexual contacts since 2012. One reason is better punishment of offenders, no doubt a result of reforms since recent sex scandals in the armed forces. But the report also points to progress in a new type of training in how to prevent sexual abuse.

A statistic from the Pentagon survey tells the story: 

Of those students at the Navy, Air Force, and Army academies who observed a high-risk sexual assault occurring or about to occur, more than 90 percent said they took some action to intervene. Men were almost as diligent as women in taking action or speaking up with a subtle hint or merited rebuke. 

This high rate of “bystander intervention” is remarkable. For other institutions dealing with problems from sexual assaults to binge drinking to suicides – especially at colleges – this provides hope for training people not to be passive or afraid when they see unethical or dangerous behavior in others. And it points to a key assumption in such education that individuals are fundamentally empathetic and can – with proper coaching – overcome fears of intervening in many situations. 

It also assumes that men are part of the solution to sexual assaults, not the problem.

The military academies are hardly alone in promoting bystander intervention. In recent years, hundreds of colleges in the United States have adopted programs such as Mentors in Violence Prevention and Green Dot. The National Football League has adopted such education for its players as a way to prevent domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. 

Last fall, the White House launched a nationwide media campaign called “It’s on Us,” which aims to prevent sexual violence on campuses, mainly through bystander intervention. “It’s up to all of us to put an end to sexual assault,” Obama said in a public service announcement. “And that starts with you.” 

School leaders know that peer-to-peer support on campuses is essential to preventing harm, such as from drinking that leads to sexual attack. Dartmouth College plans to provide “bystander education” to students for each of their four years on campus. “True and lasting change will not come from top-down policies alone,” said Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon in a speech this month to students. “It will come from individuals and organizations committing to live up to a higher standard of behavior.”

The US military academies know they still have a big task in overcoming student resistance to such training. “Cadets expressed concern with being ‘that cadet’ not wanting to get a buddy in trouble or being responsible for another cadet’s departure from the academy,” the report stated. Cadets worry about social retaliation if they say something to another cadet about sexual treatment of others.

Training techniques in bystander programs vary in approach. Some focus on men’s attitudes, others are gender neutral. Whatever the technique, the message is the same: We are all our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. As the Pentagon report indicates, good Samaritans to those in need can bring good results.

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