Bystander Intervention High Above Cayuga’s Waters

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Cayuga’s Watchers has garnered a great deal of attention for its sober monitors who keep parties safe by watching and intervening with individual party goers before things get out of hand. CW also deserves credit for its efforts to teach bystander intervention skills to thousands of Cornellians across the campus. In the 1960s, interest in bystander intervention was spurred by the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese. Residents who heard her cries for help did not come to her aid. The media were outraged. What went wrong? Since then, we have learned a lot and bystander intervention training has become a well-established technique for teaching students to intervene in a variety of problematic circumstances, including incidents related to alcohol and other drugs, sexual violence, hazing, stress, depression, and discrimination. Last year, CW trained over 2,000 undergraduates in bystander intervention.

Carl Becker reminds us that as Cornellians we are part of a long tradition, which he summed up in the phrase: Freedom and Responsibility. As Cornellians, we have the freedom to explore our world and become successful in our academic and work lives. With that freedom, however, comes the responsibility to help our fellow Cornellians become successful in their lives and to make the world a better place for everyone. As human beings, we are often reluctant to intervene when things go awry because we believe that it is not our responsibility, that someone else is better equipped to do so, or that by intervening we might make things worse.

Bystander intervention training teaches students how to step up and take responsibility when something out of the ordinary is happening. Students learn to notice what is happening around them, to interpret when an event is a problem, to assume personal responsibility for helping, different strategies for helping, and implementing an appropriate, safe, non-confrontational helping strategy. Cayuga’s Watchers training focuses on keeping parties safe by teaching students to spot drinking - related problems before things get out-of-hand and taking corrective actions to ensure individuals do not drink too much, drunken arguments do not escalate into violence, and students who may have consumed too much alcohol do not become victims of sexual assault and violence. Students, for example, are taught to recognize the “Creepy Party Goer.” There are always a few of these guys at any party. They are the guys who are aggressive about hitting on women at a party, plying them with a little too much alcohol, and don’t know how to take a hint or “no” for an answer. Understandably their predatory behavior makes women uncomfortable. We have all seen it happen but what do we do about it? Nothing? Say something but what? Punch the guy? There are many non-confrontational things that you can say and do to help. One of the first things students learn is that they don’t have to act alone. Check with others to ascertain that they are seeing what you are seeing and agree that something needs to be done. Discuss what actions you can take together or separately. For instance, a female bystander might ask the predator’s target whether she wants to go to the bathroom with her. Women always are going to the bathroom together so this non-threating intervention provides a safe out for everyone. Or, a guy, particularly if he knows the predator, can pull him aside by saying he needs to talk to him about something important. It doesn’t really matter what. It is a distraction, again allowing a graceful escape. Intervention can be as simple as these two examples, which are designed to deescalate an emergent problem situation.

Since CW began operating, it has collected quantitative and qualitative data from its Watchers after each party. Preliminary analysis suggests that the Watchers are able to implement the learned strategies with little difficulty and that they appear to be having the intended results: reducing harmful drinking, discouraging sexual predators, and generally keeping parties safe. For instance, there are quite a number of testimonials from women who have been saved from Creepy Party Goers. This is not too surprising because evaluation studies conducted on bystander intervention in a variety of settings demonstrates that, when properly implemented, it works. CW is currently conducting rigorous evaluation research on its bystander intervention training and expects similar results.

Perhaps the most interesting finding to come out of the preliminary data analysis is from Watchers who have successfully intervened and been able to report a positive experience. They report a spillover effect. They find that they are more comfortable taking responsibility and intervening in other settings. This is an important finding because it highlights that bystander intervention is a transferrable skill that, once learned, can be implemented with one’s friends, in one’s family, and at work.

So here is a suggestion for all of us Cornellians: Wouldn’t it be great if CW and other student organizations came together and worked with Gannett’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives to create a comprehensive bystander intervention program that could be taught to all students? It is a good idea and has enormous implications for providing every student with an opportunity for a “One Cornell” experience and ensuring a safe and healthy campus high above Cayuga’s waters.

Bill Sonnenstuhl
Associate Professor
Department of Organizational Behavior
ILR School