Concerned about the alarming rates of sexual assault and misconduct throughout colleges, Phil Ruthkosky, Associate Dean at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, has been diligent about implementing a “bystander intervention” program as a means to provide immediate help for students—and both to dissuade and, if necessary, stop sexual assaults. One of the important means towards implementing these programs, he points out, is how and who is responsible for the program.
“If we are going to make a difference, especially on college campuses across the country, there's no doubt that there needs to be effective leadership from college administrators from the top down,” says Ruthkosky. “But I think we must not forget that, you know, we're really never going to make a profound impact if we don't have the leadership and buy-in at the grassroots level from our students.”
Ruthkosky speaks plainly about the limited scope that school administrators have for patrolling students’ behavior—and he sees that not as a limitation but as an opportunity for investing responsibilities into students themselves.
“Let's face it,” he says, “most of these assaults take place in very familiar environments like resident halls and off-campus parties. And often it's 12, 1, 2 in the morning. I'm not there, other administrators aren't there, but students are.”
This is why it is essential for students to believe in bystander programs and trainings, Ruthkosky says.
“Get leadership from students who are there, they're cognizant. They have a respect and trust for each other. They're looking out for each other. They can recognize signs. And if they see signals or signs that look like someone is in trouble, they know how to act. I think that's when we're going to get the most profound impact.”
Ruthkosky explains that Wilkes University hosts a bystander program. The training sessions are offered in small groups. Each student attends a small group, 60-minute session for bystander training. They watch a video—about a “situation”—and break into even smaller groups to discern solutions for what they just viewed. But what is key towards the success of these sessions is not simply the message, but the messenger.
“Rather than myself going into all of the classes and delivering all of the trainings,” explains Ruthkosky, “the model that I prefer to use is, put a group of our student leaders who have volunteered to be a part of the program. They're passionate about the cause. We put them through a two-day training, giving them the information and background needed on the particular topic. And then when I go out to the classes, I'm certainly there for support, I might spend, if it's an hour session, I might spend 15 minutes talking. But the bulk of the time is actually our student leaders.”
He goes on, “I've had chills listening to our students going up in front of a class and saying, you know what? This is how we want to act as student leaders. This is the type of campus we want. We're not going to tolerate sexual violence. Here's how you can help. Here's how you can be a part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem. And to me, that's very powerful. And that's not just anecdotal that I'm seeing from my observations.”
Ruthkosky continues, “It’s not that I feel like I'm not capable of delivering messages, but I do think students have a tendency to look at administrators as one step removed from our campus. But if they have their peers who live in the residence halls, are on athletic teams, who are living the same lifestyle in respect to being a college student, you know, they have peers going up and delivering this message, to me that becomes more of a powerful, more of a profound message.”
“One of the most common themes I see on the assessments that I distribute to our first-year students is about comments like, wow, I was really impressed that the football player or the student government leader was willing to make himself or herself vulnerable and take a stand and kind of set the tone for what the expectations are on this campus through the lens of a student.”