Bystander intervention program seeks student participants

Every year, Dr. Philip Ruthowski, associate dean of Student Development at Wilkes University, recruits students to become a part of “Colonels Don’t Stand By,” the university’s award-winning, nationally recognized bystander intervention program.

Education on sexual violence and misconduct starts immediately at welcome weekend for Wilkes’ first-year students. Ruthkowski collaborates with the local Victims Resource Center and the Domestic Violence Service Center to provide a larger, overarching presentation to inform first-year students of sexual violence and what type of conduct is expected of them as students.

“We would rather be proactive than reactive. We want our students to be educated from the first time that they step on our campus throughout their four years here,” said Samantha Hart, Title IX Coordinator.

Part of Hart’s job is to oversee all of the university’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

There is also a “My Student Body” test given to every first-year student as well which is designed to give students more information about sexual misconduct and drugs and alcohol.

However, Ruthkowski expressed that the amount of information that can be taught to and retained by 400-500 students simultaneously is limited by default. That is where the “Colonels Don’t Stand By,” bystander intervention program comes in.

“You have this foundation, you know some basic concepts of sexual misconduct, drugs and alcohol, etc. Now let’s take it to the next level and talk about some techniques that you can use if you see somebody who looks or appears to be at risk to safely and effectively intervene,” said Ruthkowski.

The program allows upperclassman students to receive a combination of in-person and online training on sexual violence from Ruthkowski himself. Then, after receiving the training, the students will be able to present the information they’ve learned in first-year foundations (FYF) classes with the ultimate goal of encouraging students to play an active role in preventing sexual violence.

Thus, the training modules include intimate discussions that go into detail about different effective measures and resources that will encourage someone to feel comfortable intervening in a situation that may be speculative or alarming about sexual misconduct.

“You can be out doing the most mundane things, you could be hanging out with friends and it could just spiral into a case where this does happen. So it’s very important to talk about that because if you’re not prepared for that mentally, oftentimes that can make you freeze up or not help somebody…and that delay might make it too late for that person and they could be about to have the worst day of their life,” said Joshua Bradley, a senior political science major who has participated in the program for two years.

A staff member who is an expert in the program, whether it is Ruthkowski, Hart or a member of university Residence Life, will also accompany the student presenter to the class. This ensures that any difficult conversation that may arise from the sensitive topics that are addressed can be facilitated and handled properly.

“It’s a very hard topic to talk about because we talk a lot about sexual assault and sexual violence in the media today, so that is treated as almost taboo… but we don’t always have an open and honest discussion about why it happens,” said Bradley, “I’m enjoying the opportunity to teach a new generation of college students that they can openly talk about a wide range of topics.”

The partnership with the FYF program, according to Ruthkowski, also allows for a more flexible schedule for students who want to become involved in the program. Students can contact Ruthkowski directly to set up training times that will work for them and decide when they are comfortable to move forward and teach the presentation. Students then may sign up for a time to present in an FYF class.

Although they know many students are involved in both classes and extracurriculars, Ruthkowski and Hart both stressed that it is important for students to also make time to become involved in this program. That is ultimately why it is designed for students to be able to become involved despite how taxing their schedule may be.

“In order to have a profound impact on our campus, the messages need to be coming from our students so that they are receiving these messages and it’s not just administrators coming in and lecturing to them,” said Hart. “It’s their peers coming in and talking to them about these issues.”

Ruthkowski also mentioned that they have developed a pilot of an online version of the program to make it accessible in situations where students need to miss class, transfer to Wilkes as an upperclassman or if faculty are not available to present the information.

The “Colonels Don’t Stand By” program itself has numerous events on campus to promote sexual misconduct awareness such as the Red Flag Campaign and the Closeline Display project.

“What has been very heartening to me has been the student leadership on this issue and how students want to be part of the solution in the forefront,” said Ruthkowski. “It takes courage to do this and I have a great deal of respect and feel very fortunate to have such strong leadership from our students who are willing to have a voice on this matter.”