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Sexual assault prevention gets priority as school year begins

University students are at the highest risk of experiencing sexual assault or attempted sexual assault within their first two years on campus, but a UWindsor initiative to engage students in actively reducing these incidents promises to put the power of the campus community behind prevention.

More than 1,500 UWindsor students will take part in the Bystander Initiative this academic year, where they will learn how to effectively intervene and prevent sexual assaults before they happen.

The program consists of two courses that train students to become peer facilitators who then deliver a three-hour workshop, developed at the University of New Hampshire and adapted for UWindsor by women’s and gender studies professors Anne Forrest, Charlene Senn and Dusty Johnstone. The program is designed to teach students how to intervene, but also reconsider ideas about rape myths.

“What we’re really trying to do is reshape students’ ideas about sexual assault and about their responsibility as bystanders. This is a program that will influence students right now, and forever,” says Dr. Forrest.

She says the program equips students with both “the tools and the attitudes” to prevent sexual assault, while responding more supportively to sexual assault survivors. She says the workshops are designed to help students see incidents that are sexual-assaults-in-the-making, take responsibility for doing something to prevent them, think through what they may do to intervene safely, and act.

She says UWindsor has sought to increase student participation in the Bystander Initiative by integrating it into the academic program as credit courses, and including the workshop in criminology, psychology, and women’s and gender studies courses. As well, it is offered to Introduction to business students, and all first-year students in the Faculty of Law.

“We have been doing something truly unique here since 2010,” says Dr. Senn. “We were the first ones to bring this workshop into Canada, and the first ones to institutionalize it as part of our curriculum. This has the potential to create a lot of change, because it really affects everyone.”

Forrest says the Bystander Initiative is a mobilization strategy that engages all levels of the community to change campus culture, calling on everyone to be potential bystanders with the power to intervene in situations of sexual violence.

“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 says. “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.”