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New college training focuses on sexual assault "bystanders"

University of Michigan near Rackham and Michigan League
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Students walk on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus (file photo)

This fall, thousands of college students in Michigan are going through a new kind of training aimed at stopping sexual assaults before they happen.

It’s called "bystander intervention training,” which is exactly what it sounds like: trying to get students to feel comfortable stepping in when they see a potentially shady situation.

It’s ambitious, when you consider what kind of bravery it might take for an 18-year-old to put themselves in the mix when some stranger at a party heads off with a very drunk young woman.

At the University of Michigan, all first-year students who live on-campus (that’s about 6,400 students, according to the school) are required to go through the two-hour training.

We sat through it with a group of about 20 students, most of them guys, and the gist of the training focuses on getting students “from a 1 to a 2, or a 2 to a 3” on a scale of broader social awareness, says Ashley Schwedt, one of the training coordinators.

Longer presentations with slides about “The Four Ds” of intervention (direct, delay, delegate, and distract) are broken up by sketches performed by the school’s educational theater team, as well as some pretty deep-delving discussion questions.

“A guy I play video games with says a lot of sexist stuff, sometimes,” says student Wyatt Hanna during one breakout talk about areas in their lives when they could be speaking up, but aren’t.

“I think you’re responsible for whatever you do when you’re drunk,” says fellow student Will Bryant in a separate conversation about whether any level of intoxication means consent is impossible (hint: the trainers say yes, definitely).

“It’s like if you get arrested for drunk driving, you’re responsible,” he adds. 

Afterwards, students answer  survey questions designed to evaluate whether the training is actually effective. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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