Canadian universities trying to deter rape culture and reduce the number of sexual assaults on their campuses should take a close look at how the University of Windsor is addressing the problem, according to a researcher leading an innovative prevention program here.
The Bystander Initiative is designed to teach students how to effectively intervene and prevent sexual assaults before they happen, according to Anne Forrest, who will appear on a radio talk show today to acknowledge Sexual Assault Prevention Month.
“What we’re really trying to do is reshape students’ ideas about sexual assault and about their responsibility as bystanders,” says Dr. Forrest, director of the University’s women’s studies program. “This is a program that will influence students right now, and forever.”
Developed by researchers at the University of New Hampshire and adapted for Windsor by post-doctoral fellow Dusty Johnstone, Forrest and her colleague Charlene Senn, the program consists of two courses that train students to become peer facilitators, who then deliver three-hour workshops designed to teach students how to intervene, but also reconsider ideas about rape myths.
Since it was launched in 2010, almost 800 students have attended the workshops, which Forrest said equips them with both “the tools and the attitudes” to prevent sexual assault while responding more supportively to sexual assault survivors.
Providing students with those skills is critical, Forrest said, especially given that one in five women experiences some form of sexual assault in their lifetime – a number which jumps to one in four on university campuses, according to research done in both Canada and the U.S. To address the issue on campuses requires full support from administration, which the program has enjoyed here, Forrest said.
“You absolutely need support from people at the top, you need their advocacy, you need their willingness to put forward resources, and you need a sense of urgency,” she said. “We’re in a wonderful situation here at the University of Windsor because we appear to have brought those things together, and this is being supported right from the top.”
President Alan Wildeman underscored the importance of the program, noting that it recently received additional funds from the strategic priority fund, a special pool of resources dedicated to helping the University meet its strategic objectives – one of which is enhancing the student experience.
“No one should ever have to experience the devastating trauma of a sexual assault, and the Bystander Initiative is playing a central role in creating a campus culture that can help prevent it from happening,” Dr. Wildeman said. “We’re committed to making our campus as safe as possible for all of our students, and the efforts of Dr. Forrest and Dr. Senn, and their many collaborators, are immensely appreciated by everyone.”
Coincidentally, Forrest’s interview comes about two weeks after the federal government in the U.S. released the findings of its task force to protect students from sexual assault. Backed by president Barack Obama, the Not Alone report includes a number of resources and key recommendations to help universities get a handle on the issue.
“The things that he’s recommending in that report, by and large, are already in place here,” Forrest said.