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Faculty & Staff Honors

Kentucky Researchers Evaluate Bystander Trainings for Sexual Violence Prevention

For over 10 years, the University of Kentucky has served as a national leader in bystander intervention programming through its innovative programs like Green Dot, AlcoholEdu and Haven. Now, university administrators and researchers are coming together to leverage UK’s expertise in this area of violence prevention to determine which types of programming are most impactful to incoming students.

heather-bush rutheford
[Photos: Dr. Health Bush (left) and Ms. Kelsey Rutheford]

“In a bystander program, we’re really trying to change the community,” said Dr. Heather Bush, associate professor of Biostatistics in the UK College of Public Health and Kate Spade & Company Foundation Endowed Professor in the UK Center for Research on Violence Against Women (CRVAW). “We obviously want to make UK as safe as it possibly can be; we want the students to feel safe and empowered. We’re trying to reduce sexual violence on our campus through the interventions of effective bystanders.”

All UK students are currently required to complete both a bystander intervention and alcohol/substance abuse program online. But with the support of UK administration, Dr. Bush and her research team have begun conducting a randomized controlled trial to compare online programs with more direct, in-person training of bystanding skills (e.g., Green Dot) to determine which are most effective.

Bush collaborated with Dr. Ann Coker, a professor in the UK College of Medicine and Verizon Wireless Endowed Chair in CRVAW, who had recently completed a project where she examined the Green Dot program in high schools across Kentucky. They learned that bystander intervention programming had the greatest potential impact in situations involving risky alcohol/substance use. Additionally, UK’s 2015 Campus Attitudes Toward Safety (CATS) survey revealed a major intersect between substance use and sexual violence. So beginning this fall, Bush and her team decided to test an integrative approach of combining bystander training for sexual violence and alcohol abuse/substance use for incoming first-year UK students through a program they named ConnectED.

“We took some of the strategies we had with the Green Dot high school trial and we talked with UK administrators on how we might incorporate evaluating programs that currently existed with an integrated program that involved both bystander programming and alcohol and substance use knowledge,” Bush said. “So what we’re trying to do on campus with this trial is compare those students who go through Haven, AlcoholEdu, Green Dot and now our new integrated program (ConnectED). ConnectED incorporates bystander approach principles with not only addressing sexual violence, but also strategies for reducing opportunities for high-risk situations involving alcohol and drug use.”

In ConnectED trainings, UK students who serve as peer opinion leaders facilitate trainings during the incoming students’ orientation. They break out into groups of about 10 incoming students and two facilitators.

“These facilitators are actually some of the UK orientation staff — so these are people the students have already met throughout the day and established relationships with,” said Kelsey Rutheford, a College of Public Health research assistant for ConnectED. “They can provide specific examples that they’ve seen on campus, and that helps the students come out and say ‘well, I’ve seen this before, even in high school, what would you do in that situation?’ It makes an even playing field, and they’re more likely to be completely honest with one another, build the relationship and build trust in order to move forward and learn more about the program.”

Rutheford thinks the connections made in these personal, integrative trainings are more authentic than in other, less personal forms of bystander training.

“In online trainings, you go in, you sit, maybe eat pizza with someone for five minutes, but you don’t talk to them for the rest of the time,” she said. “But with ConnectED training, they are meeting and talking with other students, answering the same questions together, and bouncing ideas off one another.”

Bush and her team believe this ConnectED trial is the first of its kind that seeks to rigorously evaluate combining both bystander intervention principles with substance abuse training in an integrative way that is efficient with students’ time and resources.

“We’re trying to really integrate the idea of bystander behaviors to reduce the opportunities that arise on a lot of college campuses,” Bush said. “So as far as we know, this is the first evidence of its kind and we think that it’s particularly impactful. If we can take scenarios where there’s a greater potential for violence and the greater potential for students to be unsafe and intervene in a way so those situations can be handled and taken care of, we have a real opportunity to reduce violence and increase the safety of students on campus.”

The project is funded through a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but received additional funding from UK to double the number of students who could participate in the trainings. And to ensure validity of the research trial, the university allowed students participating in ConnectED to substitute this experience for other required bystander and alcohol abuse trainings. This will allow the research team to provide real, comparative evidence as feedback to UK policymakers.

“Without UK administration realizing the importance of that experimental design, we would have trouble comparing the outcomes for the study and reaching our goals,” Bush said. “So it was a monumental task, and it really made a difference when UK said ‘this is important enough that we’re going to pause our mandatory requirements and allow your team to compare these groups in a more controlled setting.’”

The research team was able to train a quarter of this fall’s incoming class, and will continue the trainings into the next academic year. While results are ongoing, the team says early surveys, administered via UK Analytics and Technologies, indicate a very positive response.

“The students were engaged in the in-person trainings, they were talking about ways to improve their safety, and more importantly, it established that UK puts their safety as a priority, something that deserves to be at the very beginning of their experience at UK,” Bush said.

For the future, Bush and her team hope ConnectED provides a model program for college campuses.

“Clearly we want something that’s scalable, something where many students could participate in these more in-person, ConnectED-types of training,” she said.

“This groundbreaking project will have very important impacts on this whole field,” said Diane Follingstad, director of CRVAW. “What we want to do as a center is to conduct and disseminate research that will help people who have been impacted by violence, but certainly a highly significant goal is to research what we expect will prevent violence. I am so pleased to be able to say this is another example of our center’s faculty accomplishing our mission.”