Title IX Red Zone Prevention: Start Earlier

We often talk about the “Red Zone” as it relates to Higher Education and sexual assault. It is a time when the students, first year students in particular, are most vulnerable to sexual assault. The time when they are finding their way, experiencing new things, and simply not comfortable in their new environment. The length of time of the “Red Zone” varies from study to study…starting the first week on campus to either Thanksgiving or winter break. It is a critical time for higher education institutions to provide tailored prevention and bystander intervention training. This is so important. We have to talk about the hard things in order to prevent them. We need to know what is happening on our campuses and on campuses across the country in order to be effective in our prevention efforts. However, as you will read, I believe this prevention and education needs to happen sooner.

Through my experience working with K-12 school districts, I believe we truly need to educate students on bystander intervention early and often for multiple reasons. First, the students are experiencing sexual harassment (including sexual assault) within their primary and secondary schools. We need to prevent the behaviors there. Second, it is our job to prepare our K-12 students to take the leap when they leave our schools. They need to prepare not only academically for college or the workforce, but also socially and emotionally. We can’t wait until students step on a college campus to teach them to be active bystanders.

I can hear the pushback from some administrators now…we are in a state that doesn’t even allow us to talk about sex…let alone sex at a party that involves alcohol and drugs. I am here to tell you that it’s more than that. And yes, those things need to be talked about…but if we start with the basics of bystander intervention in elementary, middle, and high school, the harder topics become easier for our students.

Awareness: Bystander intervention starts with awareness. Our students are spending so much time with their face in a phone on social media and other apps that they aren’t taking in their surroundings. Some choose not to notice what’s happening outside their bubble because, let’s face it, we are still dealing with the effects of isolation on our students during COVID. Thus, reminding them to be aware is critical. Just yesterday, I watched a student cross the street without once looking up from their phone. That student was not only accepting personal awareness, but I am convinced there could have been a fire directly across the street and the student would have walked directly into it. If they aren’t even aware of their own surroundings, how in the world can we expect them to watch out for others. There is therefore no question that it starts with a conversation about awareness.

Concern: Once students accept that they need to be aware of their surroundings, we can focus on their concern for others. From a young age, we teach children to “mind their own business.” I am often guilty of this with my own when I start to hear drama. However, we should be teaching, “if you see something say something.” While we should not expect them to “tattle” or invade personal space/privacy, we need to teach students that their concern for others is important. If something doesn’t seem right, we should teach them to err on the side of concern rather than indifference.

Response: If not you…then who? Once there is a concern, our students need to know that it is their responsibility to respond. Response can look different for each individual and each situation. But, some type of response, any response, can make a huge difference. In some situations, response means telling a teacher, a parent, a friend. In others it means a distraction to help remove another individual from a tough situation. Response does NOT mean putting yourself in danger. However, it means, doing SOMETHING.

Below you will find a few small examples that can go a long way in allowing students to feel comfortable working on their bystander skills to prepare them for when they may need to intervene in a more challenging situation:

  • Let someone know they have something in your teeth after a meal.
  • Let someone know they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe after leaving the restroom.
  • Ask someone a question who seems to be uncomfortable in a conversation, or make a phone call to them so their phone rings and causes a distraction.
  • Pick up a book, pencil, or other item someone dropped.
  • Call out a comment or disparaging remark that was inappropriate.
  • Report a concern to a teacher or administrator.

Recently I experienced a situation where children in fifth grade reported a concern related to some much younger children in a school. These brave students were bold enough to know that something was wrong and step out to report it. This allowed for the school to respond quickly. The younger students were safe, and fifth graders felt proud. It was a win win. We can truly make change when students are empowered to act.

Prevention should begin before orientation or welcome week at a college or institution. We need to do our part in the K-12 setting to prepare our students to be active bystanders to help prevent the Red Zone. We have to start these conversations earlier!

One passion project at ICS is to have sessions with rising Seniors in High School and college Freshman at no cost. Courtney has led many of these over the summer locally, but we are always willing to take these conversations on the road.

For more information about how we can help, or more information on this topic, contact us today!

Blog by Betsy Smith, ICS’ Director of Title IX Services.