FORT STEWART, GA, UNITED STATES
FORT STEWART, Ga. - Thirty senior noncommissioned officers from 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team and 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, recently became the first soldiers in the division to be officially certified as Bystander Intervention facilitators.
What does that mean, exactly? At the beginning of the course, not even the participants knew.
In the Army's fight against sexual harassment and assault, suicide, domestic abuse, or any traumatic event, Soldiers receive countless hours of instructional training on what resources are available to help victims, and what punishments lay in store for perpetrators. Although knowing the reporting procedures is important, the number of incidents continues to rise and something about the approach to the problem seemed like it was missing the mark.
“I couldn't get past the fact that even in the acronym S.H.A.R.P. (Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program), the 'R' is response, meaning this is not a preventative program,” Lt. Col. Jeffrey Denius said. “Instead of simply responding to these incidents, I wanted to address the broad majority of folks who are around potential victims or perpetrators who could step in and prevent negative behavior before it happens.”
Denius directed the Raider Initiatives Group to begin researching other places in the United States that were having similar problems and what they were doing to resolve it.
The search revealed an almost identical problem on college campuses. Many different programs are in place across the country to combat the issue, but one in particular stood out. The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) at Northeastern University in Boston have been operating since 1993, and focus on encouraging bystanders to take an active role by promoting a positive environment and teaching participants there are many effective ways to intervene in difficult situations.
The MVP program had experience working with Marine and Navy units in the past, so it was an easy transition to fit their curriculum to the needs of the Army.
“Some of the things that are great about the Army, like the importance of 'battle buddies' and 'no one gets left behind' are huge bystander concepts, and they really apply to this work,” said Jarrod Chin, the head facilitator for the program.
The course started by showing the participants through a series of exercises that although many of them entered the room as strangers, they all have various things in common and share similar experiences. After that realization, the conversation transitioned into open-forum discussions about key topics such as sexual assault and child abuse. Instead of approaching the conversation from a directive, definitive mentality, the soldiers were encouraged to share opinions and stories they may have in order to show to the group there is no one correct answer.
“I don’t think you can do this work as a facilitator unless you personally have thought about and worked through these issues,” explained Chin. “It is all about being authentic. You can't tell someone to do one thing but then believe something differently yourself.”
After years of training that reinforced singular viewpoints on specific issues, this seminar-based approach took some of the participants longer to get used to than others.
“This class forces you to be yourself, you can't just repeat answers you think are going to be right,” said Sgt. 1st Class Armando Hall. “You have to truly believe what you are saying. I think that if we come in at this angle with the Soldiers we will probably be able to reach them in a different manner than if we did a regular class with 50 PowerPoint slides. If you really talk to them on their own level and bring out things that they may have seen or experienced and they start to think about their personal stance on these issues, then we have won.”
Although the purpose of the course is to encourage soldiers' professional obligation to intervene in a bad situation, it was quickly apparent that until each person took the time to understand how they felt personally, no changes would be made professionally.
“Soldiers do not follow Sergeant You,” Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason said during the class. “They follow you, the person.”
This point was hit home again and a again throughout the course.
“You are one person,” said Antwaine Smith, an instructor from the MVP program. “You are the sum of a whole. Some people try to say, 'Well this is my professional answer.' No, that is your answer.”
One exercise asked the participants think about particular phrases, such as “In some situations, it is okay to hit a woman” and stand and take a position on one side of the room or the other to show that they agree, disagree, or stand in the middle if they are unsure. This physical movement forced the individuals to think very definitively about their own opinions. Once their decision was made, the facilitators asked for volunteers to share why they chose the position that they did, and those explanations showed to the class that answers are not always black and white.
By thinking more deeply on their own position, Denius hopes that the participants will be more aware of possible reactions if they run into a similar scenario in the future.
“It is important to let soldiers know that it is ok to step up and intervene through any means which they are comfortable,” he said. “And by delving into these conversations, we hope that they acknowledge that they can, instead of us just telling them they should.”
Over the course of the next few months, the Soldiers who became certified as “bystander intervention facilitators” will begin to conduct seminars in similar formats within their formations. Working in two-person teams, it is anticipated this new program will reach more than 2,500 enlisted soldiers before the end of the summer.
Reaching the soldiers will be the easiest part. Proving this new approach is making a difference will be more challenging.
“We have the ability to do surveys before and after, showing the participant's changes in opinion, capacity and propensity to intervene in a situation,” said Denius. “But I think the real way we will be able to tell if it is working is when our junior leaders are engaging their Soldiers and discovering that the Soldiers are taking care of each other.”
Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Smith is looking forward to bringing these lessons to a wider audience, and truly believes this approach is going to take hold within her unit.
“I hope this course continues to be a small group with people standing in the front who are compassionate,” she said. “Because you can see that compassion, and as a student once you realize they are not just reading off a PowerPoint but that we believe in this material, then they start to believe and this is going to spread like wildfire.”
||FORT STEWART, GA, US
This work, 3rd ID to focus sexual assault training on “Bystanders”, by SGT Emily Knitter, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.