Educating for Justice: Creating a Mission-Driven Model of Bystander Intervention to Address Sexual Violence at U.S. Catholic Colleges and Universities
By Joy Galarneau, Ph.D. and Shannon O’Neill, Ph.D.
Studies estimate that 20 to 25 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the United States will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault while attending college. Across the nation, colleges and universities are beginning to acknowledge sexual violence as an epidemic whose eradication requires significant institutional resources and commitment, and many are implementing comprehensive, community-based approaches to do so.
We present bystander intervention education as an evidence-based, best-practice approach to sexual violence prevention in college settings. We propose that mission-specific resources can strengthen this pedagogical model and advance the prevention agenda. In turn, we contend that bystander intervention education can deepen community engagement in the promotion of collegiate mission. Using our own institution, Siena College, as a case study, we contend that Catholic colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to bring bystander intervention education (BIE) and Catholic Social Teaching (CST) into constructive conversation that can strengthen both pedagogical models and build a community free of sexual violence and the structures that support it.
Transforming Values into Action: Bystander Intervention Programs at Siena College
At Siena College, the evolution and current structure of our bystander intervention campaign reflects our ongoing efforts to incorporate best-practice elements into our programs. We employ a combination of nationally recognized and homegrown programs, including the following examples.
“Who Are You?” Orientation Program: This homegrown program is mandatory for all incoming students. In its current format, “Who Are You?” follows a large group session—“Who Are We?”—facilitated by the senior college administrators. This mixed gender, large group session is designed to educate and empower students to recognize and report incidents of sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking. The students are then transitioned into same gender, small group sessions in which a Siena College faculty, administrator, or staff member facilitates an interactive active bystander workshop, with a special focus on preventing sexual violence. We anchor the program in a video titled “Who Are You?” that walks students through a sexual violence scenario and the multiple bystander intervention opportunities and strategies that could have been employed by a variety of people to prevent the sexual assault from happening.
Peer Education & Empowerment Program @Siena (PEEPs): PEEPs was founded by participants in the first MVP cohort and a Women’s Studies service-learning course, “Sexual Assault: Peer Advocacy,” in partnership with the authors of this article and a professor in the First-Year Seminar program…The PEEPs work with first-year seminar faculty to bring semester-long, interactive peer education sessions into classrooms. The PEEPs teach their peers active bystander skills, with a special focus on addressing sexual violence and dating violence…
Where Mission Meets Practice: How Catholic Social Teaching Can Strengthen Bystander Intervention Programs
The Catholic Social Teaching tradition has as its ultimate goal active participation in the creation of peaceful and just communities. In other words, this tradition is intended to inspire and mobilize Christians and all people of good will to action. Like BIE, it is intended to transform values into action.
CST supports the underlying premise of BIE: Sexual violence is not inevitable. It can be eradicated. In “Confronting a Culture of Violence,” the U.S. bishops contend: “Our social fabric is being torn apart by a culture of violence that leaves children dead on our streets and families afraid in our homes… It doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t always this way. We can turn away from violence; we can build communities of greater peace.” This claim is not the result of naive optimism. Rather, it is a faith-filled affirmation—with very practical implications—that acknowledges the magnitude and complexity of this culture of violence. And, like BIE, CST affirms that all members of a community have a role to play in eradicating violence.
CST’s approach to combating violence aligns with public health models that address the root causes of sexual violence in their prevention efforts. The U.S. bishops’ quote above acknowledges and condemns the existence of a culture of violence in our country. In the same text the bishops name many of the attitudes, behaviors, and norms that encourage and sustain it:
The celebration of violence in much of our media, music and even video games is poisoning our children. Beyond the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts. Hostility, hatred, despair and indifference are at the heart of a growing culture of violence. Verbal violence in our families, communications and talk shows contribute to this culture of violence. Pornography assaults the dignity of women and contributes to violence against them.
Documents like “Confronting a Culture of Violence” and “When I Call for Help” begin with this broader analysis and then offer a framework for action that translates CST principles into specific acts that challenge the culture of violence and promote the building of just, peaceable, violence-free communities. In “When I Call for Help,” the bishops include added steps of acknowledging ways that interpretations of scripture and Church teachings have contributed to women’s suffering and then model how to utilize scriptural passages and theological concepts to condemn abuse of women, support and empower survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.
CST’s foundational principles—human dignity realized in community and participation in building the common good—clearly align with BIE’s shifting of responsibility for eradicating sexual violence to the whole community. [J. Milburn] Thompson, explains, “The idea of the common good is that the good of each person is bound up with the good of the community; all are responsible for it.” In “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops are more blunt: “Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community.” If individuals are truly bound up with and responsible for the good of the community, then each of us has an obligation to speak out and stand up against sexual violence and for violence-free communities…
CST’s dual emphasis on works of charity and justice supports BIE that focuses on interventions across the levels of the ecological model. More broadly, it holds the potential to aid colleges and universities in their quest to strike an appropriate balance between various proactive and responsive approaches to addressing sexual violence. In CST, participation in the common good necessitates that we address both individual acts of misbehavior and broader structural injustices that threaten the common good. “We see in the world a set of injustices which constitute the nucleus of today’s problems and whose solution requires the undertaking of tasks and functions in every sector of society… if justice is really to be put into practice…” Like BIE, CST is a model that allows us to be practical visionaries, to do the work of creating the “what could be” (what Christians call “building the kingdom of God”) while acknowledging and managing the “what is.” When it comes to addressing sexual violence there is a need to share resources between programs that focus on remedying the effects of violence and those that aim at preventing it. Some risk reduction programming is supported, though always in a way intentionally designed to avoid victim-blaming messages…
We contend that just as CST can strengthen and support BIE, the reverse is true: With a critical mass of buy-in, the mission-driven model of bystander intervention can empower our communities to constructively inform the living tradition of CST. We believe that mission-driven active bystander programs have the potential to spark a call to action to the institutional Catholic Church—including Catholic institutions of higher learning—to speak out and stand up against sexual violence and for justice for women. This call to action challenges the Catholic Church to practice what it preaches, and to critically self-examine its institutional practices. For as the bishops prophetically state in “Justice in the World,” the Church itself must be just. If the Church were to answer this call, the results could be truly transforming. The Church is a significant moral voice on many issues. Imagine what could happen if this massive global organization used its moral voice to speak out against sexual violence and the structures that perpetuate it.
 Bonnie Fisher, Francis Cullen, and Michael Turner, The Sexual Victimization of College Women (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2000). Christopher Krebs et al., The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2007). Cf. Scott Jaschik, “1 in 5 After All?” Inside Higher Education, June 15, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/06/15/new-survey-finds-1-5-college-women-have-experienced-sexual-assault (accessed June 18, 2015).
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/violence/confronting-a-culture-of-violence-a-catholic-framework-for-action.cfm (accessed on July 23, 2014).
 USCCB, Confronting a Culture of Violence, sec. 1.
 USCCB, When I Call for Help.
 USCCB, Confronting a Culture of Violence, sec. 1.
 USCCB, Confronting a Culture of Violence. Idem. When I Call for Help.
 USCCB, When I Call for Help.
 J. Milburn Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010).
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, http://www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf (accessed July 23, 2014), sec. 28.
 World Synod of Catholic Bishops, Justitia in Mundo, http://www.shc.edu/theolibrary/resources/synodjw.htm (accessed July 23, 2014), sec. 20.
 World Synod of Catholic Bishops, Justitia in Mundo.
Joy Galarneau is Associate Dean of Students at Siena College, and Shannon O’Neill is Director of the Sr. Thea Bowman Center for Women at Siena College in New York.
This piece is an excerpt of an article originally published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education vol. 34, no. 2 To read the full article, including a more detailed discussion of Catholic social teaching as applied to bystander education, please visit the JCHE site.