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Could Bystander Training Programmes Reduce Sexual Misconduct At UK Universities?

Bystander programmes are not as well established in UK Universities. However, a number of higher education institutions do offer training, which range from one-off workshops to sessions spanning several months. The University of Westminster have also adopted the Greendot programme, an American initiative that emphasises breaking down barriers to intervention. Other Universities with bystander training include Imperial College London, The University of Essex, The University of Oxford, The University of Strathclyde, Exeter University, Warwick University, Cambridge University and Coventry University. As these initiatives are relatively new and largely underfunded, there is little research examining their effectiveness. However, research from the USA, suggests that bystander intervention programmes have the potential to increase intervention and reduce sexual misconduct at UK universities. Some researchers have even suggested that bystander training is more effective in reducing sexual violence than traditional preventative programmes, as students feel like an ally rather than potential victim or perpetrator. In social psychology, the bystander effect refers to the reduced tendency to help in an emergency when other people are present. Latane and Rodin (1969) investigated this in a classic psychology experiment, whereby 120 male students were either alone, with a stranger, or a friend, when they heard a woman fall and cry in distress. The investigators found that subjects in the alone condition were more likely to intervene, and were quicker to act, than those in the presence of another person. To explain these findings, Latane and Darley (1970) proposed a Situational Model that describes the complex process of deciding whether to intervene. It states that for a bystander to help, they must notice the event, define it as being an emergency, feel personal responsibility, have the skills, and decide to act. At each stage, there are barriers inhibiting the likelihood of intervention. The first is failure to notice the event, which may be caused by self-focus or distraction. The second barrier is pluralistic ignorance, which occurs when the lack of emergency in others leads one to interpret the situation as non-serious. Diffusion of responsibility is the third barrier, which refers to the sharing of blame and responsibility among members of a group. The fourth barrier is not having the skills to intervene, and the final barrier is audience inhibition, which describes a fear of embarrassment if one misjudges a situation as an emergency. Burn (2009) applied the Situational Model to sexual misconduct, finding that student bystanders were less likely to intervene when they encountered these barriers. Subsequently, initiatives in American Colleges have focused on providing students with the knowledge and skills to overcome the barriers to intervention. For example, Senn & Forrest (2016) incorporated bystander training into the American undergraduate curriculum, and found that students were more likely to help as a result of increased confidence in their ability to intervene, and a reduced fear of what others would think. Therefore, through a social psychology lens, there is research to support the proposition that bystander training should be incorporated into University initiatives against sexual misconduct.

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In June 2020, we successfully launched our report into UK universities’ sexual misconduct policies. The response was widespread and solidarity appreicated but we have always emphasised that the issue


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