We Need Better Bystander Training

Elliott Robinson
Executive Staff

Back in April, I received an email from the Office of Residential Life asking the student body to apply to be an Orientation Leader. I did not plan on being an Orientation Leader, but I applied, interviewed, and eventually got the position.  I did not realize until much later that I would be responsible for preventing sexual assault and relational violence on Sewanee’s campus.

In August, I’m ready to be an Orientation Leader. I have always liked meeting new people, and I was super excited to meet the incoming students. I knew a few friends from camp and a few “friends of friends” were coming this year, so I was more excited than usual. If you know me then you know that I love talking to others, so you also know that I love sharing the Domain with everyone. I was excited to show people the best seats in McClurg or even my favorite menu item from Stirling’s. When I got to Sewanee on August 15, I was pumped for a new school year and the opportunity to meet all of the new students on campus. Two days later I was crushed when I learned that the Orientation Leaders would be leading Bringing in the Bystander Training for the incoming students.

Bringing in the Bystander is a workshop designed to create and cultivate a community of responsibility and accountability regarding sexual assault and relationship violence. There are four main goals of the program: being able to recognize inappropriate behaviors, skill building, asking for a commitment to intervene, and role modeling. Basically, this workshop teaches people how to intervene in situations of sexual assault, relationship violence, and situations that just should not be happening. 

In theory, Bringing in the Bystander is a good program to start educating students on what it means to be a prosocial bystander and how to intervene in tough situations, but Sewanee’s Orientation Leaders should not be teaching this program.

Orientation Leader training began on August 17, and the new students were set to arrive on Saturday, August 21, at 9AM. After four days of “training” and “preparation,” Orientation Leaders were to be ready to go when new students arrived to the Domain. We were not. As an Orientation Leader, we had two training sessions on how to lead Bringing in the Bystander and only one session to practice with our co-facilitator.

For starters, orientation is hard. It’s four long days of icebreakers, information, and trying to figure out which nearly identical stone building is which. There’s very little downtime. There is even less time to process the integral information that’s being thrown at you. Bystander training was set to take place on Sunday morning. Within 24 hours, new students have to be moved in, say goodbye to family and friends, and start their college adventure.

After these unforgettable and sometimes emotionally laborious tasks of the first day of college, we expect freshmen to grapple with nuanced new ideas about sexual assault, domestic violence, and consent. This information cannot be properly absorbed or discussed, and the situation is further complicated by the fact that professionals aren’t teaching the course. Students have to bear the emotional weight of their peers, which they are wholly unqualified for. 

For Sewanee, two orientation groups combined for the training session so that two leaders were in the room in case one needed to step out. Instead of having two groups in Blackman Auditorium for my training session, we ended up having four groups of students (around 80 people) in one training session.  This made group participation almost impossible. But it also was such a struggle for us to effectively educate and communicate.

After the initial shock of learning how many students I would be instructing, I tried to remember as much of my orientation as I could. I really tried to remember something other than how tired I felt, but only bits and pieces came to mind. I briefly remember my bystander training, but I definitely do not remember all of it.

Bringing in the Bystander would be a great program if students were already coming in with a knowledge of sexual assault and domestic violence; however, many students come to Sewanee, myself included, never having attended a program like this before. Students are assumed to know the basics before entering, and are never asked what they already know about these topics. Nowhere in it does it teach students how to ask for consent, or what consent is in the first place. 

In our facilitator’s guide for training, we learned that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college, and this mainly happens during her freshman year. The anxiety and terror that this statistic brought me has kept me up so many nights this year. How am I, a 20 year old sexual assault survivor, supposed to sleep knowing that, in all likelihood, 1 out of the 5 women in my group is going to be assaulted? How am I supposed to sleep knowing that someone is sexually assaulting a fellow classmate even after going through bystander training? I don’t.

Some nights the fear of this is so strong that I find myself staying up almost all night and dreading going to class the next day. I imagine that if I had taught better then it wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes this fear makes me cry in the McClurg bathrooms after remembering all of the instances when someone could have intervened for me but didn’t.

Just because we have bystander training does not mean that sexual assault ends on campus, but its aim is to help stop assaults and promote a better campus community. But how am I supposed to teach this material after learning it three days before the rest of the students? How am I supposed to teach students to live in a community and respect one another if I myself don’t believe that this training helps? How am I supposed to feel safe for my orientation group if I don’t trust this program? I can’t.

Bystander training needs to be taught by professionals and Orientation Leaders. It’s hard material and we can’t do it all by ourselves. It needs to be dispersed within the week of orientation or within the school year. The new students can’t fully listen to us, and they definitely do not want to interact with the material we’re presenting. There has to be a better way.