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New campus rape prevention strategies

Editor’s note: This story was reported and written by the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. Read about the reporting team here.

If your image of a rapist is a hooded stranger in a dark alley, think again. The face of most rapists is one their victims recognize.

In almost all sexual assaults – 90 percent, according to the U.S. Justice Department – the attacker is someone the victim knows.

And that means the rape prevention programs of the past 30 years – rape whistles, walking in pairs, staying out of dark alleys – haven’t really made a dent in the number of assaults on campus.

That’s because efforts haven’t focused on how most rapes happen, says Davian Gagne, gender violence prevention coordinator for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“If somebody is blowing a whistle, it’s probably going to be in somebody’s residence in a bedroom, and the likelihood of somebody intervening in that situation is pretty slim,” Gagne said. She was hired in 2008 as part of the university’s response to the high-profile sexual assault case involving Lisa Simpson and the university football recruiting program.

Gagne has been focused on a new prevention tactic being introduced at schools around the nation. It’s called “bystander intervention.”

The idea is to teach people to be aware of a bad situation as it develops and to intervene. For example, it might be stopping a friend who’s had too much to drink from leaving a party with a potential attacker.

Studies have shown if roughly a third of the population becomes aware of something, that becomes a tipping point for changing attitudes and behaviors in a culture. So Gagne has been working to reach that point, and begin shifting attitudes and actions long before any whistle could be blown.

It hasn’t been easy. Fully funding the program, which would train everyone from the Chancellor, to faculty, staff and students, would cost about $260,000 — money the university doesn’t have. And not everyone on campus sees the need, she adds.

But Gary Pawlas does.

Pawlas, an instructor of mechanical engineering, worked with Gagne and others to develop a sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention program for engineering students.

“I wanted to make sure it was a safe environment for everybody that we had,” Pawlas said.

He was halfway through the workshops when he ran into a former student who told him the kind of story that reinforced his view. She had just quit her job because she said she was being sexually harassed at work.

Pawlas said he’s surveyed workshop participants and found a third said the sessions were helpful, which is around the 30 percent tipping point Gagne cited as necessary for changes in a culture.

“I’m hoping that out of this we can get some awareness at least going, so somewhere in the back of their brain they’re going to say, wait, this isn’t right,” Pawlas said.

That kind of awareness might mean a bystander steps in next time one of his former students encounters harassment at work.

“Part of this,” said Pawlas, “is trying to change the attitudes and protect people one tiny step at a time.”

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