How Bystanders Can Help Put a Stop to Sexual Violence

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Jennifer Messina ’93, a clinical psychologist and expert in trauma and recovery from violence, is helping Dartmouth implement a program called the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative (DBI), as the College works on issues related to sexual assault.

Messina, who has provided training and consultation to a number of universities, nonprofit groups, and military installations across the country, says the goal of DBI is to foster a culture of support in which people feel they can take positive steps to help their peers and to defuse threatening situations.

Jennifer Messina

Jennifer Messina ’93, a clinical psychologist, is advising the College in its development of the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Messina)

This summer, Dartmouth sophomores will be invited to go through DBI leadership training on how to be good bystanders by looking out for the people around them. Leaders from athletics, fraternities and sororities, and other student groups will attend the workshops and then recommend other students, whom they see as influential, to invite to the training program, expanding DBI through student networks.

Messina, director of Training & Development for Green Dot, etc., Inc., a Springfield, Va.-based consulting firm specializing in developing violence reduction strategies for communities and institutions, spoke recently with Dartmouth Now about her work. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

DCHIP Expands to Address Sexual Violence

The Dartmouth Bystander Initiative (DBI) aims to give all students the tools to recognize and intervene to stop potential abuse and nurture a culture of looking out for the other members of the community, says Aurora Matzkin ’97, who is organizing the program.

The College hired Jennifer Messina ’93, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and recovery from violence, to help design a program specific to Dartmouth. The College tapped Matzkin to implement DBI because of her experience with the Dartmouth College Health Improvement Program (DCHIP). DCHIP is part of the National College Health Improvement Program (NCHIP), launched in 2011 to combat high-risk drinking. This year, applying the same techniques used in NCHIP,  DCHIP will expand its scope to take on the problem of sexual assault.

Dartmouth sophomores will go through DBI leadership training this summer, learning how to be good bystanders by looking out for the people around them.

“We are working very hard to get students into the room who don’t normally participate in programs like this,” says Matzkin, who, like Messina, has a PhD.

The program is reaching out to students identified by others as people they respect, and inviting them to take part. Then these participants will be asked to identify other leaders so that a social network spreads the ethic of committed bystander intervention and prevention in high-risk situations, Matzkin says.

This will continue to grow into the fall, when it will expand into the College culture through integration with programs such as the Dartmouth Peak Performance athletics program and the Greek Leadership Council.

“DCHIP’s goal is to get 800 students through the program in the next year,” Matzkin says.

Dartmouth Now: Are college campuses facing a growing problem with sexual assault?

Messina: Rates of sexual violence are unacceptably high on college campuses across the country. There is no reason to believe that the rates are increasing, but there is clear evidence that communities are no longer willing to tolerate these rates.

Dartmouth Now: How does the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative (DBI) differ from the programs currently in place to help victims of assault on campus?

Messina: The Dartmouth Bystander Initiative is a prevention program that is informed by a broad base of research. Like many other programs, it is designed to mobilize bystanders to do their part to reduce sexual violence. DBI is unique in that it was built specifically for Dartmouth, taking into consideration the unique culture of the community. Moreover, DBI is designed to engage a broad base of the community (beyond individuals who have historically seen themselves as part of violence prevention efforts). As a result, the legacy of the current generation of Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff will be a safer place.

Dartmouth Now: How does Dartmouth reach people who may not see this as their issue?

Messina: The best way to engage people who don’t yet realize that this is their issue is to reach out to them personally and directly and help them see that individual safety is a community responsibility. The fact is that everyone is impacted by sexual violence. We all either know someone who has been hurt or have been hurt ourselves.  The majority of Dartmouth students agree that they don’t want anyone to get hurt.  But in terms of intervening to defuse a high-risk situation, they just often don’t know what to do or how to do it.

DBI is designed to equip people with the knowledge and skills necessary to be positive bystanders. There are a lot of barriers that can make it hard to intervene even when people really want to. The focus of DBI on solutions that honor people’s barriers increases the likelihood that people will find realistic options that will be effective in their lives. The DBI facilitators will reach out to a broad range of individuals across community subgroups to let them know about positive, proactive ways they can do their part to make the community safer for everyone.

Dartmouth Now: How does Dartmouth integrate this initiative so that it becomes part of the culture?

Messina: In order to achieve this, we need participation from people across the different subgroups that comprise the Dartmouth community.

The new norms will be positive, proactive bystanders and a reduction in violence. Since DBI is predicated on the belief that we can all integrate moments of prevention into the lives we are living, moments of safety will be woven into the daily life of Dartmouth by the individuals who attend a DBI training.

Dartmouth Now: Are you optimistic about Dartmouth’s efforts to address the issue of sexual violence?

Messina: I am very optimistic about the future. Dartmouth has a bright and engaged student body, highly committed faculty and staff, and an administration that has shown a clear and sustained commitment to this issue. With DBI we have a clear path for a measurable reduction in violence. As an alum, I feel a strong sense of pride and relief that Dartmouth will be a community I would feel safe allowing my children to join.