By CJ Gates
It’s a subject difficult to talk about, but a topic far too important to simply let fall by the wayside: sexual assault and sexual violence awareness.
In the spring of this year, Canisius developed the Sexual Violence Prevention Team, which consists of various members from the College spanning across the counseling center, athletic departments, Student Life, ROTC, and Public Safety, as well as graduate and undergraduate student representatives.
That team then spawned a subgroup which included Eileen Niland and Charita Price of the Counseling Center, Jenna Cochrane of Student Life and Traci Murphy of the Athletics Department. This subgroup got together and created a bystander intervention program called “Step-Up Griffs,” which is aimed at giving students the skills and knowledge they need to be proactive in helping fellow students in order to prevent sexual assaults from occurring.
“There is evidence that a bystander intervention program is effective in reducing the number of sexual assaults that occur,” explained Price.
One of the main advantages of the Step-Up program is that it is customizable for whatever college or university chooses to utilize it. With Step-Up Griffs, the College was able to tailor the program specifically around Canisius’ Community Standards that all students adhere to.
“Being men and women for others, we talk about that and cura personalis, if you’re caring for the whole person and everybody is caring for the whole person, then we kind of step up and look out for each other,” said Dr. Terri Mangione, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students. “I think the whole notion of bystander intervention fits here.”
One of the first groups to see the program were the Orientation Leaders during training at the end of August. Then, since mid-September, a team of four graduate students have been presenting a bystander intervention program known as Step-Up Griffs to the entirety of the freshman class, as well as anyone who is willing to listen.
Kristen Perry, Benjamin Rutkowski, Aaron Tomassini and Samantha Bobbe were the original four graduate students who were leading way with the presentations that began in the middle of September. The presentations, which are approximately 50 minutes in length, were given to all incoming freshmen as part of the Griff 101 program as a mandatory event during the second, third and fourth weeks of classes. Following the presentations, students are asked to sign a pledge to not be a bystander and since then well over 600 students have signed the pledge that will soon be hung on the wall near Tim Hortons.
A big push with the program is making it entirely a peer education program. Currently with the four graduate students giving the presentations, there is a feeling that the students are more willing to listen to the message of Step-Up Griffs than if it were being delivered by a faculty member or a Canisius administrator.
“We’ve seen a great reception to us being relatively close to their age,” said Tomassini. “And there’s a lot of research out there shows that the closer you are to their age in a peer to peer presentation – it’s infinitely more effective with topics of alcohol and sexual violence and things of that nature.”
In addition to the four graduate students,applications went live last week to all undergraduate students who would like to sign up to become a peer educator and co-lead future Step-Up Griffs presentations.
Rutkowski would also like to see faculty as well as coaches attend one of the Step-Up Griffs presentations, something that has yet to occur.
“Students look up to professors, they look up to coaches,” Rutkowski said. “We all need that person going through our undergrad years to look up to, why not look up to them and have them go through the same presentation?”
Tomassini and Bobbe agreed with Rutkowski and said those faculty that do advising are often the first people that make a connection with students.
“It gives faculty members the words to use in conversations with the students,” said Bobbe.
“That’s a big point,” Tomassini added. “I think it’s really important that we as a community speak with one voice. So getting coaches and faculty and staff and administrators involved in that conversation and having them see where we’re coming from and the language we’re using to make sure that that message is consistent is going to be really, really important to the goal that we’re working towards.”
As the program continues to grow and reach out to more students, all involved expressed interest in getting more club and organizations leaders to reach out and schedule presentations for their members in order to spread this important message throughout the entire Canisius community.