After two years, half of Georgetown students receive bystander training online—and say it isn’t effective

April 15, 2022

Design by Insha Momin

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and violence.

More than two years ago, the class of 2023 sat in multipurpose rooms around campus for a half-day Bystander Intervention Training session for sexual assault prevention in the first weeks of their freshman year. Over the past few weeks, current first-years, sophomores, and transfer students sat in front of their laptops and completed “U Got This!”, a virtual bystander training module that became available in mid-March. Until recently, more than half of the student body lacked any university-run training on how to intervene in situations of assault, harassment, and other issues related to sexual and interpersonal violence. 

Students were required to complete the online course by Apr. 11 to avoid a hold on their registration for fall 2022 classes. While some students welcomed the return of some form of bystander training, others feel the online programming is not sufficient in either providing new knowledge on intervention or addressing the larger sexual health climate of Georgetown’s student body. 

“It was lacking in the way that they presented the material, the way they tested you on the material and made sure you retained the information, and also the way the student body responded to it,” Sarah Pino (NHS ’24) said of the training.

“Bystander intervention education is a proven public health strategy for empowering and equipping students to prevent, intervene in and respond to sexual assault,” an email sent to students on Mar. 17 read. The message, from Dean of Students Jeanne Lord and Title IX Coordinator and Director of Title IX Compliance Samantha Berner, cited COVID-19 restrictions as reason for the training being moved online. 

Upperclassmen student leaders voiced concerns about the online training and the impact it will have on the safety of Georgetown students. 

“Online learning is not very engaging, no matter how interactive these modules claim to be,” Lauryn Ping (COL ’23), organizing director for H*yas for Choice (HFC) said. HFC is a student-run club on campus that, among other things, provides Hoyas with contraceptives and information on healthy sexual behavior. “Being in-person and really talking about these issues with other people—I just feel like that’s the best method of really coming to terms with the gravity of sexual violence.”

Bystander Intervention Training has been mandatory for all first-year and transfer students since 2017. This move was in part a response to a 2016 survey showing an eight-point increase in the percentage of female students at Georgetown who self-reported sexual assault relative to averages from the Association of American Universities. The university introduced a series of initiatives to address these concerns and a lack of peer intervention in suspected assault or harassment, though a 2019 survey found little change in self-reported assaults. The second survey did, however, report an increase in bystander interventions by students. 

The former five-hour “Bringing in the Bystander” (BITB) training was normally run through Health Education Services (HES), but the virtual curriculum offered to students this semester, “U Got This!”, is delivered through Catharsis Productions, according to HES Director Carol Day.

Georgetown offered no mandatory bystander training of any form in fall 2020, and the initial promise to deploy a fall 2021 training never materialized. While some members of the class of 2024 and transfer students who participated in the Summer Hilltop Immersion Program (SHIP) participated in optional bystander workshops, the majority of Hoyas arriving on campus for the first time this past fall had not been trained to provide support or safely intervene in instances of sexual assault, causing concern for student safety. 

HES staffing cuts during the pandemic contributed to the pause in programming, including the vacancy left by Erin Hill, the former interpersonal violence training and education specialist, in September 2020. The role was not filled until March 2022, with the hiring of Hannah Gray. “We had capacity issues for one. We had just hired the person whose job it is to implement this program,” Day said. 

While the university aimed to revive the training in-person, according to Day, the logistical strain made it impossible for HES to implement. Roughly 3,500 undergraduate students required training, but room capacity limits and COVID-19 distancing measures limited the understaffed office’s ability to cover every untrained student. “If we couldn’t do it, to get everybody from this year’s freshman class and the sophomore class through the program, we really should pause and not try to do it halfway or partway,” Day said. 

HES hires and trains bystander facilitators—both students and staff—to run BITB sessions hosting 20 to 40 students. “We’d have to find and hire these people for bystander facilitators, we’d have to train them. They would have to put together logistics for an in-person or even a virtual program at a massive scale. We don’t have the capacity to do that at all,” Day said. 

Even hiring a new staff member for the education position was too little, too late. “Certainly we were never happy that two classes of students hadn’t had this training because we really think it’s really important and vital,” she added.

In a January 2022 Voice interview with University President John DeGioia, he reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to holding these trainings for students and admitted the university’s responsibility for the lengthy absence. He cited the public health crisis for the disruption to this commitment. “It’s not an excuse, it’s on us, we should have figured out how to get it done, but we will,” he said at the time. 

Despite the planned training being pushed back once more, DeGioia promised it would be administered before the end of the spring semester. “We will either do it virtually, or we will do it hybrid, or we will do it in person, but we will do it, and it will happen this spring,” he said. 

Two months later, the university finally delivered on its promise with the online course. 

“Hopefully, fingers crossed, everybody takes it seriously and hits the deadline for completion or at least gets through it this semester, because then we will have people educated at some same baseline level that we can get back to,” Day said. 

“U Got This!” is organized into three modules: “U Against the World,” “U Gotta Know When It’s Wrong,” and “U Gotta Be an Upstander.” Each takes between 15 and 20 minutes. The course begins and ends with a survey asking students to respond to a series of questions about sex, relationships, toxic culture, and domestic and physical violence by indicating whether they strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, or strongly agree with provided statements. 

The training, however, is far more limited than the previous five-hour, interactive course that called on students to seriously ponder strategies for safe intervention. “There was no real assessment of skills,” Pino said. “So I just found that a bit counterintuitive.” 

The first module followed the initial survey with an animated video series featuring lessons defining keywords like “interpersonal violence” and “normalizing” as a way to introduce bystander culture. Interactive activities included determining whether words like “screwing” and “pounding” were indicative of sex, violence, or both, and indicating whether specific images that depicted sex or sexualized people were “cool” or “not so cool.” 

“It seemed often very tacky, like it was catering to the wrong audience with the way everything was portrayed and all these attention-grabbing statements and phrases,” Pino said. She added that the training was not effective in teaching her new information.

The second module discussed consent, sexual assault, and abuse, and included an interactive element where students had the option to classify a given example as abuse. 

Based on what Pino heard about the previous BITB program, she thinks a return to the in-person format is the ideal next step in making these trainings their most effective. “In-person training is really important just because it holds people accountable and keeps them reliable,” she said. 

According to Day, the process has already begun to train people for in-person programming as soon as this summer, and definitely by the fall. “I think everybody wants to be in-person, and that’s our preference,” Day said. 

For some juniors and seniors who participated in bystander training during their first year at Georgetown, however, even the in-person programming could be improved. 

“It wasn’t a particularly survivor-centric position. A lot of it was also kind of outdated and how it framed stuff,” Leah Miller (COL ’23), who organizes with the Black Survivors Coalition (BSC), which has been at the forefront of student activism around sexual assault, said. “You could feel that it was like a mandated thing, and it wasn’t something where it felt like you were actually engaging in creating a better campus culture.”

According to Miller, the one-time training model, even in person, does not fully equip students to intervene in situations of sexual violence. “There’s conflicting evidence about the utility of bystander training as a one-and-done kind of thing, which is the model that Georgetown has been using since at least I was a freshman,” they said. 

Additionally, students have criticized the former in-person training for focusing almost solely on being a bystander to sexual assault, rather than safe sexual behavior. “We also need to start thinking about how to prevent people from getting sexually violent in the first place and how to build healthy relationships,” Ping said. 

With a general lack of sexual health education on Georgetown’s campus, the onus has fallen on student-led groups, like HFC, to fill that gap for their peers. 

HFC has addressed these long-standing shortcomings by passing out condoms, delivering Plan B, and hosting open conversations about sex and relationships, among other things. In the absence of bystander training, Sexual Assault Peer Educators (SAPE), student-led and run through HES, has run training sessions for individual clubs. 

Student leaders can request trainings from SAPE and in the past were required to participate in “HoyUS: Leadership Bystander Training.” Outside of those options, there exist few additional routes to educate club members and protect students from assault. According to Tara Ravishankar (COL ’22), house mother for Haus of Hoya and president of South Asian Society (SAS), the only way an individual can be removed from a school-sanctioned club due to sexual assault allegations is through an official Title IX investigation. And when students don’t feel comfortable with the institutional reporting process, student leaders have to step in however they can, even without proper training. 

“It falls on club leaders to deal with it, and club leaders are unequipped and are literally prohibited from doing the necessary work, but they end up being the ones who have to do that work, who have to be supporting survivors, who have to be holding back abusers, who have to be teaching this prevention stuff,” Ravishankar said. 

The nature and risk of sexual assault at Georgetown’s campus vary across student demographics, experiences, and identities. “Different cultural groups have different relationships with sex, and when you look at the data of sexual violence on campus, there are definitely differing rates of sexual violence and different forms of sexual violence that are more prevalent in different communities,” Ping said. 

According to the 2016 survey, 85.7 percent of students who identified as “transgender, genderqueer 0r non-conforming” experienced sexual harassment at Georgetown. Throughout the online modules, the course acknowledged how presented norms and conceptions of assault and abuse are different and perceived to be different socially for queer couples. 

According to Ravishankar, campus organizations that bring together minority identities, such as Haus of Hoya, have a particular need for bystander training and sexual assault prevention programming. Haus of Hoya provides a space for queer, trans students of color at Georgetown. 

“You’re going to face more marginalization based on how many intersecting oppressive identities you have, so yeah, queer students, queer students of color, queer femmes, are going to be the ones who are the most vulnerable,” they said. 

Ravishankar would like to see bystander training that goes beyond prevention and intervention and doesn’t assume that sexual assault is inevitable. According to her, the current reaction-centric training and the nature of resources at Georgetown puts the burden primarily on vulnerable populations to seek out resources. “What does that do for all the people out there who are doing the assaulting? Prevention is not just bystander training,” they said. 

According to Day, HES is open to new types of programming that address these concerns and works to support student leaders more. “We’ve been really limited by our capacity. And I hope that we will be able to expand and do more,” Day said. “I’d love to have more capacity to do things like that, and I think it’s truly necessary. We shouldn’t just be crisis-oriented.”

And hopefully, with more staffing and as changing COVID-19 conditions allow for in-person training, the focus can shift to listening to students and improving the programming across the board. 

According to Miller, it’s critical that if these trainings are done at all, they should be done right. 

“In the end, if it’s bystander training not done properly,” they said, “it’s not going to create or show any meaningful change.” 

Annabella Hoge
Annabella was a student in the college, class of 2023, who enjoys watching Dodger games, talking about her disco thesis, and drawing angry creatures. She was also the Spring 2023 Editor-in-Chief.

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