THE BLOG
06/11/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

Cayuga's Watchers Watching Out at Cornell Parties

Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, we wanted to warn readers that this article describes an assault.

Like other partygoers, they chatted, danced and posed for pictures in a room slick with spilled beer; blending in among slits of midriff, the overhead lights flashing a matrix of colors on outstretched arms. But unlike the others, their cups were filled with water, they had a thirty-minute rotation schedule, and had gone over the floor plan just before the start of the party, all with a secret agenda: keeping other partygoers out of trouble.

They are called Cayuga's Watchers, Watchers for short -- Cornell students working undercover to prevent alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct at parties. Sober, specially trained to intervene in certain situations and paid for their role, Cayuga's Watchers are part of a growing trend of peer-to-peer intervention programs on college campuses across the country.

Binge drinking -- defined as consuming five or more drinks in a single sitting for a man and four or more for a woman in the past two weeks -- has been a persistent, systematic problem at colleges for more than four decades, with 4 of 10 college students in America taking part, according to the Dartmouth University-led National College Health Improvement Program. Cornell is not exempt from this: About 43 percent of Cornell students surveyed in spring 2014 reported at least one incident of high-risk drinking over the past two weeks.

In response, bystander intervention has been used at many schools to prevent both high risk drinking and sexual assault. Programs designed to target alcohol abuse include the Quaker Bouncers at Haverford College, an entirely student-run organization, and the Green Team at Dartmouth College, which was adapted from the Haverford model. The University of New Hampshire offers a bystander intervention curriculum. Step UP!, a program designed by the University of Arizona in conjunction with the National College Athletic Association, aims to teach students to intervene in a number of different situations, alcohol abuse and sexual assault among them.

While university officials generally praise these initiatives as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing binge drinking and sexual assault on college campuses, there is no good data on their effectiveness. Still, many are hopeful that peer bystander intervention can help reduce some of the most endemic and persistent problems facing college campuses today.

An evening out with the Watchers at Cornell revealed some of the innovative strategies they have developed to deal with tricky social situations. This was the first time an outside observer had been allowed in, and it was done under the condition of anonymity for the Watchers -- who operate covertly at events -- and the host of the party.

The party

Fifteen minutes before the influx of guys in fluorescent "Frat" hats and girls in glittery tank tops and sky-high heels through the fraternity's door, the Watchers arrived. They met with the fraternity president to review the perimeters of the party; the expectations of the Watchers' conduct for the night, set up a group message between the Watchers team and the fraternity president, and memorize each other's faces. Amid strings of bright lights and streamers, they walked through the house to identify the locations of the bathrooms and where drinks were being served.

As the first attendees trickled in, the team joked about the strength of their drinks and traded stories of previous events they'd worked. Sarah and Kira told of how they'd intervened when a drunk guy picked up another drink, asking if they could have a sip and taking it away from him. When the partygoer had insisted Kira finish the drink, she faked drinking it and stealthily threw the cup away, she told us.

"Wow, that guy was so gone," Sarah said.

Making their way to the dance floor, keeping track of fellow partygoers became more difficult for the Watchers as the crowd thickened. In a jungle of moving arms and teeth glowing under the black light, it was almost possible to miss a girl sitting in the corner on the edge of the dance platform. Kira* went over to check on her. On the platform itself -- a space for dancing for most attendees, but also a great vantage point for the Watchers -- a girl stumbled by in a daze.

"You okay?" Sarah asked.

"I'm good," the girl responded, startled.

As an ash-blonde in towering heels, a pack of frat-tanked men surrounding her, staggered to the sound of Ke$ha singing "looking for some trouble tonight," Ashley* slipped in and began dancing with her.

A few minutes later, Ashley returned. "She's fine," she said. "I think that's her boyfriend. She introduced me to him."

Logan*, another member of the five-person Watchers team that night, which also included one member of the fraternity hosting the party, kept an eye on students "slapping the bag" -- drinking directly from the mouth of a bag of cheap wine. By the bedecked, glowing DJ booth, Ashley scanned the crowd. "I'm looking at how people are dancing," she told me.

As Ashley, Sarah and Kira danced to the soundtrack of Top 40 hits, a man wearing one of the event's tank tops slipped by, his eyes lingering on the circle of girls.

"Did you see that guy that passed by?" Kira asked. "I've been keeping an eye on him."

Situations that might have been overlooked by students with cans of beer in hand, their faces lit up by their phones as they texted, like the girl riding piggyback on a fraternity brother's shoulders, or the two reeling, hugging girls, caught a Watcher's attention. While none required intervention, the organization aims to monitor situations before more serious action -- such as calling an ambulance -- is required.

Periodically, Sarah and Kira cycled through the bathrooms to look out for anyone vomiting or passed out in a stall. As they sidestepped a line out the door, a girl in line glared at them.

"Hey, don't cut!"

"I'm not," Kira responded, stepping up to the mirror and feigning an eyeliner check, all the while her gaze directed not at her reflection or the man at the urinal next to her but probing the room, examining the empty shower stalls and corners of the bathroom.

Cayuga's Watchers: the organization

Cayuga's Watchers is an entirely student-run, non-profit organization that began at Cornell. Though it is independent from the University, Watchers received training and development assistance from Cornell. In the long term, the goal of Cayuga's Watchers is to teach students to step in when they see dangerous situations, not just when they're on the job.

Members are trained on when to initiate the Emergency Action Protocol, given an overview of the protocol itself and taught operating procedures at the event. Watchers are instructed on how to intervene in four broad categories of possible situations -- cases involving excessive drinking, rowdy behavior, predatory behavior and alcohol poisoning -- without putting themselves in danger. Interventions vary based on the situation, but typically involve using conversation and distraction techniques to prevent further alcohol consumption or unwanted advances.

Mitigating high-risk drinking at Cornell has become a focus in recent years, particularly after the death of sophomore George Desdunes in a fraternity hazing ritual in February 2011 that involved alcohol. Binge drinking also has a connection to sexual assault: one in two cases of sexual assault involve consumption by the perpetrator, the victim or both. This connection is likely because alcohol exacerbates existing risk factors for the crime, according to a study released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Aiming to bring colleges together to reduce binge drinking, the National College Health Improvement Program was founded in June 2011, and Cornell students' involvement with the NCHIP inspired the Cayuga's Watchers model, which has been in the works since September 2011.

Cayuga's Watchers differs from these programs in its independent, non-profit status. It launched in October and since has worked with about 17 different student organizations, a majority of which are in the Greek community, to place Watchers at 31 parties. There are currently 117 Watchers and they are paid about $40 per event they work. Funding for the program is sourced from local foundations, nonprofits and individual alumni contributors. When on the job, employees are covered under general liability insurance and workers compensation; the organization's leaders fall under directors and officers liability insurance.

So far, none of the events Watchers have been present at have had medical transports from the location, according to outgoing Cayuga's Watchers president Eric Silverberg.

"It's hard to prove a negative; hard to attribute any one factor, initiative, or policy as being part of a change," Silverberg said. "It's still early in our organization's development to credit any one outcome with our development." Still, despite the absence of statistic proof of Watchers' effectiveness, the program aims to change drinking behaviors, which is crucial to producing shifts in campus drinking culture, Silverberg said.

Cayuga's Watchers has started to gained traction with student organizations at Cornell, but it initially had a hard time. Cayuga's Watchers must be invited to be present at a party, yet student organizations were originally hesitant to request their services -- misperceiving the organization as an enforcement agency, rather than a student initiative aimed to promote safety, Silverberg said.

"Students, especially in the Greek system -- because it's so traditional and one of the oldest institutions on campus -- are predisposed to being resistant to change," Silverberg explained. "Tracing our development, the Greek system was the first community on campus we wanted to break into. In Fall of 2012, I remember presenting before Inter Fraternity Council (IFC) meetings; visiting with chapter presidents and trying to sell them on the idea and meeting with lots of resistance. The Greek system moved from being one of our biggest critics to being some of our best advocates, with the leadership of IFC and Panhellenic Council actively involved in going back to their communities, supporting our presence and being some of our most forceful ambassadors.

Cayuga's Watchers and Preventing Sexual Misconduct

Though the main goal of Cayuga's Watchers is to prevent cases of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning, the Watchers are trained to intervene in sexual assaults as well.

During Halloween weekend of 2013, Maria* -- a Cayuga's Watcher stationed at a fraternity party, working her very first event -- was rotating from the crowded basement to the main floor when she saw something out of place.

The upstairs area was a "chill environment, you would never think anything like that would happen -- there was no music, the lights were on, and people were just talking," Maria said. A group of male and female partygoers were hanging out in the area, when suddenly "a guy literally grabbed [one of the girls'] breasts and bra and tried to rip it apart. Right there, right in front of everyone," Maria said.

Everyone else -- clearly stunned -- made no move to intervene. Maria, fearful of getting hurt herself, asked one of the fraternity brothers to step in and separate the two. Afterwards, the female student thanked Maria for her help.

Silverberg noted that sexual assaults typically don't occur out in the open at parties, and Watchers only operate within the boundaries of the party set by the host. Watchers are trained to provide an out, or a window of opportunity, for a student to escape unwanted advances, for example by offering to go to the bathroom or dance with them.Ultimately, Watchers are taught that "if nothing else is working, the worst thing you can do, really, is not ask in that scenario," Silverberg said.

Preventing sexual assault has been a priority at Cornell even before President Barack Obama named a task force on the issue earlier this year, and Cayuga's Watchers is not the only student group aimed at using bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault. Like with high-risk drinking, Watchers can step in at earlier phases of the problem, according to Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett Health Services, Cornell's on-campus health facility.

"In cases of sexual assault, bystanders could potentially intervene when someone is being assaulted or touched without her consent," Marchell said. "What may occur more openly in the presence of others could be a coercive act by a man who is trying to either provide additional alcohol to a highly intoxicated woman or escort her to a private location. Those could be opportunities for bystanders to intervene."

Marchell said he believes Cayuga's Watchers can play a key role in shifting campus culture relating to how alcohol is served and used at parties, but that is it only one part of a comprehensive approach to reducing high-risk drinking and sexual assault.

"Students and administrators may not always agree on the strategies for reducing alcohol-related harms, but we all agree that increasing student safety is of paramount importance," Marchell said. "[Cayuga's Watchers] builds on a growing body of evidence that the actions of bystanders can reduce harm of various sorts, and the fact that it is student-led increases the potential for it being accepted by both student event organizers and students at large."

Several Watchers named shifting campus culture as the reason for their involvement in the organization.

"As an international student, coming here was very different. I was really shocked by the party culture at the beginning," Maria said. "Back home people drink, but it was different, not as risky as sometimes it is here. I was like, 'We need to change this culture, do something about it.'"

As for the intervention she played at that Halloween party, Maria said she was proud to have done her part.

"At the time I was just very scared of what could happen," she said. "I knew this girl from beforehand, knew who she was, and was just shocked -- I had never seen anything like that. I don't know where I got the courage to say something."

*Names of individuals working for Cayuga's Watchers have been changed to protect the anonymity of the organization's members.