Members of the University of New Hampshire community participate in SHARPP's annual Anti-Violence Rally & Walk, 2016.

Photo by Connie DiSanto

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Decades ahead of other institutions at ending sexual violence, the University of New Hampshire demonstrates the effectiveness of bystander intervention.

When selecting a college from which to announce a new sexual assault awareness campaign in 2011, the White House had an easy choice. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both arrived in Durham, N.H., the New England town that’s home to the University of New Hampshire’s flagship campus, to kick off Not Alone. The year prior, Biden hosted three UNH professors for a reception at his Delaware home, and in a 42-minute speech on campus, the former senator praised them for their work: “You guys are doing it right. You’re the model for the country,” said Biden, who introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990. “I wish all colleges had a little more UNH Wildcat in them.”

Renowned among policy wonks and feminists alike for its bystander intervention program, its research institute on violence against women and its independently-funded rape prevention and crisis center, UNH is an undisputed leader in ending sexual assault on campus. But this public school with 12,500 undergrads wasn’t always ahead of the curve. In February 1987, three upperclassmen repeatedly had sex with an intoxicated freshman female in her dorm, Stoke Hall — a story that matches contemporary accounts about rapes at the University of Montana at Missoula, Florida State University and many more schools. What’s different about UNH is that faculty and students responded to that crisis as an opportunity to eradicate sexual violence. As a result, it’s a standout amongst institutions of higher learning.

Over three bitterly cold days this February, exactly 29 years after the Stoke Hall incident, NationSwell spoke with Wildcats on campus about what encourages UNH students to intervene if a sexual assault looks imminent. Both students and faculty report that, over time, the gradual changes to campus culture snowballed into a strong ethic of condemning rape when classmates notice its signs. But UNH still isn’t satisfied with those results, citing the 23 students who reported being raped in 2014, according to federal data. To maintain its reputation as a leader, the school continues to better its campus-wide outreach to prevent sexual assault.

With, as of now, 175 open federal investigations into colleges’ compliance with Title IX (the federal law on gender discrimination), universities nationwide are introducing speeches that read like disclaimers, lengthy consent policies and online sex ed courses — many developed by a cottage industry to keep schools in compliance with the law. These additions may stave off government investigators, but they haven’t necessarily been proven to keep students safe, says Jane Stapleton, co-director of UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC) which studies ways to end gender-based violence, including sexual assault, relationship abuse and stalking, and is located on the college’s campus. At UNH, “we don’t subscribe to that. That is not what we’re about,” she declares; instead, the school has developed evidence-based solutions that are proven to stop rape. “Whenever someone says [their prevention education is] evidence-based, I say, ‘Show me the evidence,” Stapleton adds. “Let’s see the studies.”

SHARPP's "tabling on the go" takes its program message of "Wildcats get consent" out onto campus. Photo by Connie DiSanto

Stapleton emphasizes results because she’s seen the ugly damage sexual assault can do. In 1987, as a graduate student in sociology, she watched the Stoke Hall incident unfold in the press and a public tribunal held over four evenings in a 170-seat lecture hall. At the open hearing, all three men were cleared of sexual assault charges. (Two of the three were suspended for six months on related charges, and both later pled guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault in criminal court.) After the university’s decision, vocal confrontations broke out on the wooded, snow-carpeted campus, including a mass of protestors forcefully occupying the dean’s office, hanging a “Help Wanted” sign from a flagpole, which functioned both a joke about replacing the dean and a serious cry for administrators to recognize the problems. When the students refused to vacate the office, 11 Wildcats were arrested, according to news reports at the time.

Witnessing the seething anger on campus, Gordon Haaland, then university president, penned an apologetic letter to the student body just before summer break, saying he’d return to campus “ready to examine our moral behavior.” The following fall, administrators presented a plan to address sexual assault, the first steps that would grow into UNH’s current success. Haaland, administered a campus climate survey, which found that within the first six months of the 1987-88 school year, 37 percent of UNH’s women experienced unwanted sexual contact and 10 percent were raped, and males reported 11 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Haaland also hired a full-time rape services coordinator, who beefed up the immediate services available to survivors, supplementing an underground, grassroots effort started by UNH faculty and staff a decade prior in 1978, according to current staff. That program would grow into SHARPP (Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program), one of the only rape crisis centers located on a college campus that receives independent funding. It also has the distinction of being among the earliest, says Amy Culp, its current director. In the mid-1970s, “there was a big movement [against] domestic violence. Sexual assault didn’t come into the scene really until the early 90s,” she notes, meaning that SHARPP had a two-decade head start, allowing it to mature into the seven full-time staff (including one coordinator for male victims) and 90 volunteers it has today.

For five years, Stapleton provided direct services for rape survivors at SHARPP, including a yearlong stint as its director, before transitioning into research, where she collaborated with three colleagues (Victoria Banyard, Mary Moynihan and Elizabeth Plante, another former SHARPP director), who were using a 2002 National Institute of Justice grant to independently test a new prevention program, Bringing in the Bystander, on UNH’s student body.

The model’s experimental trial at UNH found that students who received three 90-minute training sessions showed significant increases in their willingness to intervene. “Perceived confidence goes up. We do see shifts in their attitudes in terms of, ‘I have a responsibility. I feel like I have a role to play in addressing these issues on my campus,’” says Banyard, a researcher at PIRC. After a two-month check-in, students had also reported more instances where they intervened, although “what’s trickier is figuring out how to link that to reported rates of assault,” Banyard says. Because only a handful of survivors bring their case to university administrators or police, sexual assault is “a hidden crime,” making it tough to measure changes without an established baseline, she adds.

Bringing in the Bystander would be the first rigorously evaluated prevention program on campus — eventually informing today’s “You Can Help” campaign, which is run independently by SHARPP. Drawing on its best elements, as well as those from several other renowned prevention programs (including the athlete-centric Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and the more emotional Green Dot, a program developed at the University of Kentucky), the messaging of “You Can Help,” is simple, presenting options for what students can do, rather than lecturing them on what they can’t. “We go into classrooms and say, ‘You can help by calling the police. You can help by taking your friend home. You can help by not leaving a friend at a part. You can help by being an advocate,’” says Culp.

Student advocates spread the message of "You Can Help" by volunteering at SHARPP to help run the campus 24-hour support line. Photo by Connie DiSanto

SHARPP’s staff teaches workshops on these lessons to students. After running through the causes, prevalence and impacts of rape on campus — “the ‘why’ we do this work,” Culp says — the instructor explains how a person can change the statistics as an active bystander. Rather than watching a very drunk girl be carried into a bedroom, for instance, a bystander should check in to see if the woman wants to go back to her own room instead. Instructors tell stories of interventions that range from aggressively pulling a person away, fists up, to more subtle methods, like drawing the person into a circle of friends on the dance floor. (Football player, Daniel Rowe, prefers a bait-and-switch, telling his teammate, “You know she doesn’t want to talk to you, but there’s this other girl downstairs who really likes you,” even though the second girl is nowhere to be found.) At the end of the session, students fill out an evaluation form that asks them to name specific ways to intervene.

Like the One in Four men’s program at the University of Virginia, the ultimate goal of the training program is to create an environment where perpetrating violence against another community member is socially unacceptable. Undergraduate leaders report that students feel fiercely involved in the cause. “Young adults today don’t want their generation keeping quiet about the pain and horror of [sexual violence]…We want to make it more comfortable to speak out,” says Emily Counts, a sophomore who chairs the Student Senate’s Health and Wellness Committee. Stickers created by SHARPP bearing the simple message, “You Can Help,” now adorn refrigerator doors, corkboards, backpacks and laptops. “There’s so many ways of being a bystander,” Ryan Grogan, a senior history major who works with SHARPP, tells students. “If you let it happen, you’re part of the problem.”

The efforts of upperclassmen like Grogan and Cameron Cook, current student body president who ran on a platform of combating rape and a certified peer educator himself, are particularly valuable to incoming freshmen, whose lack of social capital may deter them from intervening as they’re still trying to adjust to college. You’re basically “asking them to act differently from the crowd when they are trying to fit in and make friends,” Banyard says. Still, training new students early is essential, since some research suggests rape is most likely to occur during the first months of school, a period of time known as the “Red Zone,” when drinking is especially heavy on campuses. During the first two weeks of school, there’s a lot of girls who are “very vulnerable and make very poor decisions,” says Counts. With UNH’s “You Can Help” program, workshops during orientation and consistent messaging give clear actions to new students.

That messaging, however, hasn’t been rigorously tested in the same way Bringing in the Bystander has, but its broader meaning clearly resonates, says Cook. “I think the message is simply to teach everybody in the community to stand up for each other in whatever way possible. Not just with sexual assault, but with other violations as well,” he explains. But while it reinforces the idea that students have the power to help each other, SHARPP’s “You Can Help” doesn’t require students to practice specific techniques to prevent a sexual assault, nor does it experimentally test its effectiveness. The lack of evidence-based training might seem okay for a campus that’s already a White House-recognized model for the rest of the country: one might think, there’s no need to educate students on establishing a safer environment when those norms already exist. But harping on sexual assault without those tangible results that Bringing in the Bystander emphasizes risks making consent workshops seem like a lecture or a joke.

The campus leaders that NationSwell interviewed didn’t treat the subject of sexual assault lightly, but only one student could actually point to a time when he and a few friends had personally intervened by separating a “definitely intoxicated” girl from a group of guys and walking her home. “What happened was the best-case scenario: the young lady was walked home, and that was the end of her night,” explains Justin Poisson, a sophomore fraternity member who staffs SHARPP’s hotline. Others share secondhand stories, like inviting someone in trouble to get pizza or a male friend saying, “Babe, let’s go,” to imply they’re dating. Still, even if those students haven’t personally stood up to anyone, they say there’s a stronger sense of community on campus when it feels like someone has your back. Campus climate surveys, following up on the original 1988 questionnaire, appear to demonstrate progress too: by 2012, self-reported victimization rates had been halved in every category, for both men and women.

Nationwide, focusing on prevention has made a recent resurgence in college dorms. (It briefly fell out of fashion as a solution to campus rape, partially because so much attention from the media and policymakers focused on victims’ horrific stories of rape and accused perpetrators’ demands for a fair hearing, Stapleton says.) And soon, to stay in compliance with Title IX and the Campus SaVE Act, all universities will need to formulate broader responses that include prevention to the rapes occurring on their campus. It’s up to them. Will they do enough to barely stay in compliance? Or will they implement a more robust bystander intervention program (like the one at UNH) that changes how students interact with each other?

By giving sexual assault the attention it deserved, the University of New Hampshire became an undisputed leader. Everyone else has a lot of catching up to do.

MORE: Can a College That’s Notorious for Sexual Assault Reform Itself?

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]