The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Georgetown’s budget and resources forced cutbacks in essential areas, including the bystander intervention training that is typically mandatory for first-years but did not take place last semester.
Health Education Services (HES) typically administers the five-hour training session in conjunction with student and community trainees, covering topics of sexual assault and misconduct, reporting policies, and guidance for situations where a peer is at risk. Developed by the UNH Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC), the program is designed for groups of students who discuss and work through case study examples. With the advent of the pandemic, the program has not been made available for students online, and staffing cuts at HES have forced the university to pause the training.
The staff member responsible for running Bringing in the Bystander, Erin Hill, vacated her position last September. Her responsibilities as interpersonal violence training and education specialist included online alcohol and sexual assault prevention classes, but the position remains unfilled. In the meantime, HES director Carol Day has taken over facilitating those online courses so HES can continue to offer them.
“That position is frozen now; we’ve been asked, as have other departments across the university, to give back potentially a position for funding reasons, so that’s on the table,” Day said, adding that responsibilities would need to be distributed among the remaining staff. HES recently filled a separate vacant position to promote diversity and inclusion in their sexual assault response and prevention team, but administering training programs may become an additional responsibility for that position.
According to Day, HES receives many requests from student organizations each year to conduct additional trainings for upperclassmen and student leaders. Due to a lack of staffing, Day said they have had to turn down some requests for specific trainings.
According to Day, the virtual learning environment and facilitation issues caused HES to pause the training, intending to adapt the in-person training in line with public health guidelines once students can return to campus. Soteria Solutions, the organization that vends the PIRC-developed training session, provides Georgetown with a license to administer the workshop but had not altered the program for online use until late into the fall of 2020.
According to Day, the program is more effective in-person for students arriving on campus for the first time. “It’s logistically a hard program to implement, and we try always to deliver it when students first come and let the awareness be raised before they’re vulnerable,” Day said.
The training itself is relatively new, with the first mandatory workshops held during the fall semester in 2017, following a sexual assault and misconduct climate survey held the previous year.
Campus climate surveys, conducted in 2016 and 2019, have demonstrated a clear need for bystander intervention education. According to the first set of data, 31 percent of female-identifying undergraduates experienced non-consensual sexual contact as a result of physical force or incapacitation, as well as 10.8 percent of male-identifying undergraduates. Students reported high rates of sexual harassment, with 47.4 percent of all students having experienced it since arriving at Georgetown, and especially high rates, 85.7 percent, among students who identified as “transgender, genderqueer or non-conforming.”
Data from the second survey showed similar or higher levels of sexual harassment but reported an increase in bystander interventions by peers. 78.4 percent of students reported that while witnessing “a situation they believed could lead to a sexual assault,” they took action, as opposed to the 77.1 percent who responded that they did nothing to intervene in the 2016 survey.
Before the pandemic, HES planned to expand their bystander training offerings, according to Day. HES staff wanted to create an additional module with greater emphasis on race, gender and Georgetown-specific scenarios to be administered in addition to the licensed training workshop. Staffing cuts have at least temporarily delayed these efforts.
Moving forward, Day still sees the training program as a priority for students and HES staff during the pandemic, but she acknowledges it will need to adapt due to health protocols and staffing. “We will have limitations for sure, and we’ll have to decide how to prioritize the work differently,” she said.
In addition to logistical challenges, she said, the needs of the student body during virtual learning circumstances have also shifted. Fears of sexual violence and harassment may be less applicable within the Georgetown community when students are learning remotely, but other areas may pose a greater threat, including threats at home, social media, and online activity. HES seeks to use student feedback to better tailor bystander intervention trainings in the future, especially as circumstances for in-person learning remain unclear.