Elie Sharp remembers how she rescued her brother from an awkward situation during a social event.
A young girl had plopped herself into her brother’s lap unexpectedly when her brother, who was born with Asperger’s syndrome and shuns crowds and touching by strangers, whispered, “Help me.”
Sharp, a competitive archer, coach and a University of Colorado Boulder freshman from Arvada, Colo., jumped into action with hawk-like precision.
“Hey, I need you over here. Can you help me out?” she asked the girl, who hopped off her brother’s knee and followed Sharp. The diversion tactic helped Sharp resolve the issue without embarrassing her brother, the girl or herself.
Distraction, as it turns out, can be a powerful tactic to diffuse conflict or to rescue others from awkward, embarrassing, degrading or potentially dangerous situations. Other effective tactics include confronting the situation head-on or employing a stealth approach that allows a helper to fly under the radar. All are practical tips included in an effective training for new students called “Bystander Intervention.”
The training, developed by the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance or OIEC, raises awareness about personal safety, sexual assault and other serious issues, and reminds students that people sometimes need a Good Samaritan to step up and help a friend or stranger when they are at their most vulnerable.
“With stealth helping, sometimes people don’t even know they’re being helped,” said Julie S. Volckens, the OIEC’s associate director for assessment and education.
Volckens and Teresa Wroe, the OIEC’s education and prevention program director, co-developed and now facilitate bystander intervention training every year for all incoming CU Boulder students. Students are required to take the training during their first semester on campus.
Students who complete the mandatory program get credit by scanning their Buff OneCard at the end of the session. Those who don’t make it to the training in their first semester at CU Boulder will find themselves with a hold on their account and unable to register for the spring semester.
During their training sessions, Wroe and Volckens ask students to consider various scenarios and how they would respond if they sensed a fellow student needed help, and discuss difficult topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence, public drunkenness and bullying in the process. They also ask students to suggest ways of coping with unwanted, negative behavior and provide insights from their own experience and training.
In auditorium classrooms filled to capacity this past week, Wroe led multiple bystander intervention sessions, and invited participants to consider how they might respond to a difficult situation in their residence hall, at a party, in a campus building or in another location.
“Who here would say, “I’m someone who would have my friend’s back?” Wroe asked participants. “Who here would step up if they saw a bad situation happening?”
Wroe told the students, many of them new to the college experience, that the training would help them “up their game” with a new and practical skill set.
“We want to give you some options for addressing problems when they come up,” she told more than 400 students who packed the auditorium in the Mathematics building.
There are multiple motivational factors that can propel people to help a friend or a stranger in need and just as many that can make it difficult to intervene, including embarrassment, uncertainty about whether help is wanted in the first place and personal safety concerns.
A social psychological phenomenon known as “the bystander effect” can occur when observers assume someone else will help, that they don’t have the necessary skills to help, or that it is not their responsibility.
Simply being aware of all of these issues can help students unpack the psychology behind the all-or-nothing dilemma—the idea that if we can’t completely resolve the problem at hand, then maybe we shouldn’t get involved at all, Wroe said.
Arriving on campus and adjusting to a new social environment is an exciting time for undergraduate and graduate students, but it’s also when students are most likely to run into trouble. The fall semester is when incoming students experience the most thefts, stitches, tickets and sexual assaults—which is why people need skills to interrupt these situations before they become a problem, Wroe and Volckens impress upon students during their training sessions.
This past summer, OIEC released the second phase of its sexual misconduct survey findings, including the statistic that 28 percent of the 5,519 female undergraduate students who responded to the survey reported having experienced some form of sexual assault.
The survey identified sexual assault as “nonconsensual sexual contact or penetration,” and listed several tactics that sexual perpetrators use to facilitate such behavior. The tactics included catching a person off guard; ignoring someone’s efforts to get the aggressor to stop; deception, manipulation and emotional threats; incapacitation through alcohol; physical threats and intimidation; and force.
“Sometimes when people are in a bad situation, they may not even be able to recognize it,” Wroe told students this week. “Say what you see and just start helping.”
Sharp, the archer who came to her brother’s aid, said the bystander intervention class offered “a new perspective on things you would not normally think about.”
Cameron Sojak, a freshman from a military family that has lived in countries around the globe but now calls Colorado home, said the class was a good reminder to be vigilant about uncomfortable situations that can arise in some social settings.
“They never teach you how to be a good person,” he said. “Some people need a reminder on how to be a decent person.”
Arriving on campus and adjusting to a new social environment is an exciting time for undergraduate and graduate students, but it’s also when students are most likely to run into trouble. The fall semester is when incoming students experience the most thefts, stitches, tickets and sexual assaults—which is why people need skills to interrupt these situations before they become a problem.