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09/23/2015 10:03 am ET

We Know One Way To Stop Sexual Assault, But Students Aren't Doing It

A survey of 150,000 students reveals a major gap.

Out of 27 universities included in one the nation's largest surveys on campus sexual assault, a majority of students at just four schools said they intervened when they saw someone "acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner."

At 23 of the schools, most students said they didn't do anything when they saw situations that were possibly leading to sexual violence. The numbers should serve as a "call to action" on many campuses, said Jane Stapleton, co-director of the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

"We need to move our institutions forward to work creatively with students to figure out how to intervene as bystanders," Stapleton told The Huffington Post. "[Bystanders] are not these super-human individuals, we are all bystanders in many ways."

The Association of American Universities, a trade group that represents many top schools in the nation, surveyed 150,000 students at 27 different schools. Their findings, released Monday, showed 54.5 percent of students did nothing when they saw someone "acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner." Only Dartmouth College, the University of Missouri, Case Western Reserve University and the California Institute of Technology had a majority of students who said they did act in these situations.

In the survey, 77 percent of students overall said they did not act when witnessing "a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter."

As part of his administration's "It's On Us" campaign, President Barack Obama has pushed for more colleges to use bystander i
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images
As part of his administration's "It's On Us" campaign, President Barack Obama has pushed for more colleges to use bystander intervention training.

The situations described don't necessarily mean that a sexual attack was going to take place, and the researchers note that not every drunk person planning to engage in sex is committing an assault. But the findings still raise eyebrows as colleges nationwide attempt to crack down on campus rape.

There were a lot of "disturbing, disheartening and worrisome" data points in the results, said Robin Holmes, University of Oregon's vice president for student life. "That was just one of those, and it shows we have to try a variety of different approaches."

"This is a complicated, nuanced issue," Holmes told HuffPost. "The only thing we can continue to do is to ask questions and develop enough trust to determine what's really going on."

What Is Bystander Intervention?

Bystander intervention training has become a favorite choice among college administrators seeking to curb sexual assault, and the White House has placed a spotlight on this approach through the "It's On Us" campaign and public service announcements.

The idea behind bystander intervention is fairly straightforward: Students are taught to recognize potentially dangerous or risky situations and how to intervene to stop someone from committing an assault. Early data suggests training on this issue can help lower the risk of sexual assault occurring. 

But across the board, in situations similar to those depicted by the White House PSAs, where a drunken person was heading for a sexual encounter, three-fourths of students did not intervene.

Just over half of students at most universities surveyed did nothing about "someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner," though a majority of students at a handful of schools said they took some type of action.

"My follow-up question to that number would be how many of the campuses actually had a formal program in place?" said Alison Kiss, executive director for the Clery Center for Security on Campus. "Bystander intervention is promising when there is a program accompanied with it."

Dartmouth College did stand out with the highest rate of bystanders who took some type of action in these situations, with 57.7 percent of students saying they did something. Officials with the university attribute this statistic to their ongoing bystander intervention training, workshops with athletes and fraternities and their continuing rape prevention curriculum for upperclassmen.

Why Didn't Students Intervene?

Some schools, like Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin, stood out in the AAU survey for their low rates of female undergrads reporting assaults. But even at those institutions, a majority of students said they still didn't intervene when someone was acting sexually violent or when a drunk person was headed for a sexual encounter.

"A couple of things could be happening -- either bystander intervention training may not be administered strongly enough on campus, or often enough on campus to make an impact yet," said Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a sexual violence nonprofit that launched last year. "But we also know one-time education efforts are not effective."

The White House's star-studded "It's On Us" campaign often emphasizes bystander intervention.  
ASSOCIATED PRESS
The White House's star-studded "It's On Us" campaign often emphasizes bystander intervention.  

Nationally, 24.5 percent of students who did nothing in these situations said they weren’t sure what to do, and 30.0 percent claimed they didn't act for another, undisclosed reason.

"We don't know what they measured," said Noel Busch-Amendariz, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at UT. "They certainly didn't measure the program on campus. We would want to know more about the programming on campus."

UT-Austin participated in the survey, but Busch-Amendariz and other campus researchers were not involved in constructing the question language. Both she and LaToya Hill, UT-Austin's Title IX coordinator, said they recognize the results show a need to continue "courageous conversations" about what it means to be a bystander, and they don't feel the survey shows much about whether their education programs have had an impact yet. 

Researchers also want to dive deeper into the reasons these students have for not acting to stop someone who is behaving in a sexually violent manner.

"Perhaps they felt like 'I couldn't intervene for social pressures,'" said Stapleton at the University of New Hampshire. "Another person might say, 'I didn't intervene because I'm under the age of 21, and at my college, if I went to get the [resident adviser], I'm 18 years old and I've been drinking,' so they potentially could get in trouble."

Advocates hope colleges use this data to double-down on training students to better protect their classmates.

"If I was one of the campuses that saw a large percentage of my students saying they would not step in,"Kiss said, "that would be a sign we need to talk about this."

Watch the White House's public service announcement about being a bystander:

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Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can contact him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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