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College teaching its students how to save their peers from harmful situations

Journal Staff Report | 10/7/2015, 6 a.m.
The University of Texas System is teaching its students a valuable lesson they won’t find in their textbooks: how to ...

The University of Texas System is teaching its students a valuable lesson they won’t find in their textbooks: how to save their peers from harmful situations.

The System is launching a three-year initiative this fall to teach students intervention strategies to help prevent suicides, sexual assaults, high-risk drinking, hazing, hate speech and academic dishonesty, among others. Known as the UT System Bystander Intervention Initiative, a $1.4-million allocation from the Board of Regents that’s funding the program at all eight UT System academic campuses to teach students how to keep their peers healthy and safe.

“The health and well-being of students across the UT System is of the utmost importance to me,” UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven said. “The Bystander Intervention Initiative is a comprehensive approach to empower our students with the knowledge to improve their campus environment and make a difference in someone else’s life.”

Through social media and text messages, as well as face-to-face interaction in personal, classroom and social settings, UT System students are in a unique position to observe the red flags of developing crises. The Bystander Intervention Initiative seeks to provide students with the tools and motivation to intervene, helping make UT System campuses safer.

“Oftentimes, a situation turns into a crisis because there was no intervention,” said Wanda Mercer, Ed.D., UT System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs. “We are teaching college students civility, how to respect and care for each other.”

Each participating campus — UT Arlington, UT Austin, UT Dallas, UT El Paso, UT Permian Basin, UT San Antonio, UT Tyler, and UT Rio Grande Valley — is creating its own individual initiatives using core Bystander Intervention Initiative action steps to recognize a problem, choose to respond and take action.

For example, UT Austin has developed an initiative called “BeVocal”, which partners with units across campus to empower Longhorns with the skills to collectively prevent and reduce harm. BeVocal’s message is being delivered through social media, poster campaigns, postcards, student plays at orientation, presentations and other avenues.

“While different types of harm exist in college — the three steps of recognizing the harm, choosing to respond and taking action — will be consistently applied to multiple student issues throughout our university’s campaign,” said Chris Brownson, Ph.D., UT Austin’s associate vice president for student affairs and the System-wide Bystander Intervention Initiative project leader. “Each System campus has the autonomy to craft its own initiatives to meet the unique needs of its student body. We hope to create a culture of care, and we have developed a solid evaluation process to measure the effectiveness of every campus’ initiative.”

At UT Austin, the BeVocal initiative seeks to educate students about the specific details of intervention phases in the following manner:

First, students need to determine what harm looks like. It includes, but is not limited to: academic dishonesty, high-risk drinking, interpersonal violence such as sexual assault and stalking, mental health issues, suicide, hazing, harassment, racism, sexism or homophobia.

Next, students can choose to respond with strategies that reduce barriers and empower individuals to assume personal and collective responsibility. Some personal barriers include: assuming someone else will respond; deciding the situation is someone else’s responsibility; assuming the problem is not a big deal; being afraid of retaliation; and seeing the situation as personally embarrassing if action is taken.