Activating the Potential for Student Bystander Intervention on Campus by Laura Stiltz Dahl

ACPA Commission for Housing and Residence Life Sponsored Program
Monday, March 27 | 12:45-1:45p | Convention Center C162AA
Presenter: Laura Stiltz Dahl, MEd

Most college and university administrators know their campuses are “at-risk” environments for sexual misconduct (McMahon, 2010).  Research suggests that 1 in 5 women, 1 in 16 men, and nearly 1 in 4 students identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming experience sexual and partner violence while in college (Cantor, et al., 2015; Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2007), with most campus assaults involving alcohol and occurring in social settings such as residence halls or fraternities (Abbey, Ross, McDuffie, & McAulens, 1996; Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2001; Messman-Moore, Coates, Gaffey, & Johnson, 2008).

Since more than 50% of survivors do not report because they believe the event was not “serious enough,” college campuses need to do more to prevent campus sexual assault as well as create a campus environment supportive of survivors.

Encouraging bystander intervention behaviors is an emergent and promising approach to addressing campus sexual violence by equipping community members to intervene when they witness others in potentially harmful situations (McMahon, 2010).  By utilizing bystander intervention programs, campuses hope to emphasize the role that community members can play in helping prevent sexual violence and train students to act in ways which can disrupt potentially harmful situations (Baynard, Plante, & Moynihan, 2004; Dovidio, Piliavin, Schroeder, & Penner, 2006).  Past program assessments have focused on measuring students’ current attitudes and perceived ability toward intervening as well as past intervention behaviors, but few have attempted to measure how likely students are to intervene. The Study of Integrated Living Learning Programs (SILLP) is an assessment of relevant and timely co-curricular student outcomes related to residential choice and subsequently includes two measures of bystander disposition to understand the likelihood students will intervene in a variety of college-related scenarios. We hope that educators use the information gathered from this particular measure as a means for designing effective programming for students in recognition of their roles as community members with responsibilities to intervene on each other’s behalf.

We use theoretically-validated and empirically-tested scenarios to measure the likelihood students will engage in specific behaviors to assist those in possible harm.  The first situation considers issues of consent and involves a clearly drunk woman leaving a party with a man.  Students are asked if they know the man, know the woman, or don’t know either person and are asked to consider how likely they would intervene by either saying something to one of the people, physically intervening, or getting others to help them in intervening.  The second situation considers possible domestic violence when hypothetical non-gendered neighbors the students don’t know well begin fighting to the point when a physical altercation is likely to occur.  Students are asked how likely they are to intervene by saying something to their neighbors, getting others to help them in intervening, or calling the authorities.  For each possible situation, we also ask why students would not say something or intervene.

Initial results are based on data gathered from 2,837 students enrolled in one of ten campuses over the past two years.  Noteworthy findings suggest:

  • Students are generally less likely to intervene when they know at least one person in the situation and when the threat of harm is implicit (i.e., the party situation);
  • Students who identify as Latinx or American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander are consistently the most likely to intervene in all situations we presented (when compared to students of other races and ethnicities)
  • Cisgender women are more unlikely to intervene than either cisgender men or transgender students in any way for all the situations, even if they are friends with the drunk woman leaving the party;
  • Transgender students are more likely to intervene than cisgender men, depending on the parameters of the situation (such as knowing someone in the scenario);
  • Straight students are no more or less likely to intervene than a student who identifies as LGBQ;
  • Students in living learning programs are more likely to intervene in the party situation than students in traditional residence halls, but not a large difference in their likelihood to intervene in the neighbor situation by residential environment.
  • The most popular reasons for not intervening are being afraid of physical retaliation in the moment or thinking the situation is none of their business.

We’ve also found that some aspects of campus life which may seem unrelated to bystander intervention dispositions, in fact, are.  For example, regularly discussing sociocultural issues such as politics and multiculturalism with peers positively influences students’ likelihood to intervene in our situations; so does living in a residential environment supportive of academic success.

Given these preliminary findings, our ACPA session will offer practical suggestions as to the practices most successful in supporting college student bystander behaviors.  It is our hope that taken in concert, this measure and its follow-up questions will inform the design of programs that address the “how” and “why” students can and should intervene in potentially harmful situations.


Laura Stiltz

Laura Stiltz Dahl, MEd, is a 2nd year PhD student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at The Ohio State University.  She previously worked with living-learning programs at Baylor University and Rutgers University’s Douglass Residential College. Laura currently serves as the Research Director for SILLP.




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