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Stepping In 

To curb campus rape, colleges train students on how to intervene.

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It's a Wednesday evening in November, and about three dozen students and others are gathering for a zero-credit seminar on what might be the biggest issue on college campuses today.

The group settles in for a discussion on sexual assault as they munch on chocolate-chunk cookies in the Olpin Union auditorium at the University of Utah.

"Why is it very important to talk about rape and sexual violence?" Kassy Keen, program manager for the U's Center for Student Wellness, asks.

"Because it happens all the time," one participant answers.

"To get rid of myths," another adds.

"Victims can't speak for themselves," a third says, when they're too scared to tell friends and family.

Keen nods. "It's on you—more than ever—to have a dialogue about this," she says.

And it's on the U to spark the discussion.

Colleges nationwide are in the spotlight for how they handle sexual assault after it happens. But federal guidelines also require them to be proactive. Universities in Utah and across the country broadcast the message with posters, flyers and online videos. Most ask students to complete online training on healthy relationships.

But experts say the most effective programs also include real-life lessons, in which educators like Keen coach small groups of students on how to get and give consent, respect other people's boundaries and intervene in troubling situations that they think could lead to sexual assault.

Campaigning through posters and social media blitzes helps raise awareness, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center wrote in a 2013 review of prevention research, "but it also should augment in-person prevention programming."

It's common for campuses to offer one- to three-hour bystander trainings, and students often receive certificates for completing longer ones. But the sessions largely are infrequent and poorly attended.

"We have limited resources and staff," Keen says. "We have to focus." The trainings are mandatory, she notes, for student athletes and members of fraternities and sororities. The rest of the student body can choose to attend trainings offered two or three times a semester.

In the November class, students took turns putting the lessons to use by participating in role play. In one scenario, for example, students found a woman searching for her friends as they were leaving a house party. One guy tells her not to worry; he already told her friends he would take her home. So what do they do?

You don't necessarily have to confront him or call the police, said Krista Olsen, a Utah State University student who came for inspiration to improve a similar program at her own school.

"There's different ways of stepping in," she said. "Even if it's just talking to other people around you and saying, 'does this situation seem out of place?' or alerting someone in authority."

"It's one thing just to learn about bystander training, but to be able to know how to apply it to situations is very helpful," Olsen said.

The November evening class also reviewed Utah's legal definitions of sexual assault, as well as victim-blaming myths, including the common belief that a woman wearing a short skirt or low-cut top is asking for sex.

It was the most well-attended of any optional trainings the U has hosted. Keen attributes the turnout to an Oct. 31 report that a man in a Halloween mask raped a student at gunpoint in her car in a campus parking lot. The reported attack continued to rattle students the following week, and many at the training wanted to know what they could do to help prevent similar assaults.

Only a handful of students, by contrast, showed up to a pair of October sessions.

"We have found that the best attendance is seen when students feel connected to the cause," Dean of Students Lori McDonald said in a statement, "and encourage their friends to participate." The U gets the word out via its digital campus calendar and its weekly newsletter, as well as week-long pushes that aim to raise awareness about sexual assault.

A U of U spokeswoman says it is happy to increase the offerings if demand continues to grow.

Two-thousand miles east of the university's Salt Lake City campus, New Jersey's Rutgers University has also struggled to attract students to its bystander programs. Rutgers offers 45-minute introductory trainings and a longer, seven-hour session.

"Getting students to attend that and getting to staff that is a challenge. We want as many students as possible to go through that," Laura Luciano, Rutgers' interim director of violence and intervention, says. Like the U, Luciano's university has committed to offering more trainings, but has not set any specific benchmarks toward the goal.

Rutgers has, however, grown Luciano's budget enough to allow her to hire a male educator in her office to increase participation among male students. The new staff member hosts discussions on sexual assault geared at men on campus, who are less likely than their female counterparts to attend the optional bystander sessions.

But the one-time lessons might not be enough. The courses should be continuous, according to a 2014 analysis of prevention programs by the Centers for Disease Control.

Receiving the information only once is "not effective at changing behavior in the long-term," researchers working for the CDC write. Even though they might be helpful as part of a larger strategy, "they are not likely to have any impact on rates of violence if implemented as a stand-alone strategy or as a primary component of a prevention plan."

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