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Bystander intervention program changes attitudes about sexual assault

A study by researchers at U of Windsor shows participants in the program more likely to step in.

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | OCT 15 2014

A sexual assault bystander intervention program in place at the University of Windsor is successfully changing participants’ attitudes about campus sexual assault and increasing the likelihood they will step in when a potentially risky situation arises, according to a new study.

The research was conducted by the two researchers who introduced the Bystander Initiative at Windsor –Charlene Senn, professor of psychology and women’s studies, and Anne Forrest, director of the women’s studies program – and by Michele Gnanamuttu, a senior research assistant.

The bystander program is designed to change campus norms and attitudes about the acceptability of sexual assault and to encourage students to intervene when they see aggressive sexual behaviours.

To evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the researchers surveyed 545 students who had participated in a three-hour bystander intervention workshop and a control group of 326 students who hadn’t received the training. Participants completed online surveys before the workshop, one week following the workshop, and then again after four months.

The survey results showed that participants who had attended the workshop were significantly more confident in their ability to intervene effectively in a situation where there was a risk of sexual assault than those in the control group, and were also more willing to intervene. These participants reported stronger intentions to respond to situations that involved both friends and strangers. Students in the control group reported a greater propensity to step in only when friends were involved. Those who had completed the workshop also were less worried about how others would perceive their actions and said they took proactive interventionist measures such as having a plan in place should a risky situation arise.

There was little difference among the two groups when it came to actually stepping in to prevent a sexual assault. However, Dr. Senn said that students may not have had an opportunity to do so in the four-month period covered by the survey.

One thing the study didn’t gauge was whether the program has had any impact on reducing the number of sexual assaults on campus. Past research, noted Dr. Senn, suggests that this kind of change takes many years.

The bystander program isn’t aimed at transforming the behaviours of perpetrators but rather the attitudes and behaviours of bystanders. “That’s why the effects are much more slow,” she said, “because you are changing the environment.”

Drs. Senn and Forrest presented the results at a conference of the American Psychological Association held in Washington D.C. earlier this year and have submitted them for publication.

U of Windsor’s program is modeled on the highly acclaimed “Bringing in the Bystander” program developed by researchers at the University of New Hampshire and now being adopted by many U.S. campuses. U of Windsor was one of the first in Canada to introduce it. One reason it was chosen, said Dr. Senn, was that it has been shown to be effective by researchers.

At the U of Windsor, researchers made a few changes to the program. They reduced the length of the program and made both the workshops and the training required to lead the workshops part of course curriculum. Students who want to facilitate workshops must enrol in two undergraduate courses. The courses teach participants about the social psychology of bystander behaviour and train them to lead bystander workshops. After completing the courses, facilitators work in pairs – one female and one male – to deliver the workshops to other students during class time in selected courses.

Dr. Senn and her co-authors conducted the study to see whether the changes they had implemented had altered the program’s effectiveness. The results showed that it “is working at least as well and perhaps better” than the University of New Hampshire version, she said. By making workshops part of the regular course content, there’s a chance to reach a broader group of students, she added.

Since the program was introduced in 2010, about 60 facilitators have been trained; some 800 students have taken a workshop. That number is expected to increase as students in the introductory business course and new law students will be required to take the workshop. U of Windsor has fielded inquiries from several Canadian universities, some of which are considering adopting similar programs.

Separate from this study, Dr. Senn is conducting a multi-year study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This one will assess the effectiveness of a sexual assault-resistance education program that was delivered to 900 female students at three universities. The results of the randomized controlled trial are expected to be available later this year.

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