In last month’s Healthy Relationships column, I wrote about how we can help our children as they go back to school to be engaged bystanders. In that column, I explored the practice of using the 3Ds (Direct, Distract, Delegate) when kids find themselves observing situations that make them uncomfortable — situations of bullying or exclusion of others, for example. The skills needed to directly confront a situation, distract a perpetrator from their behavior, or delegate (find someone in authority to help) are easily taught, even to young children. But we can’t stop having those discussions with our kids in kindergarten or first grade — because our teenage and college-age children need to have those skills as well.
Recently, Penn State’s Gender Equity Center and Stand for State initiative hosted an interactive activity for new and returning students called “Turning the Red Zone Green.” The goal of the event was to address what is called the “Red Zone” by helping students understand the 3D approach to becoming engaged bystanders to prevent sexual violence. The “Red Zone,” according to the New York Times, is “a period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break.”
That the first semester of college is a time of increased risk for sexual assault has been verified through multiple studies and, frankly, experienced first-hand by those of us who respond to sexual assault victims in our community. Penn State, along with colleges and universities across the country, works with incoming students to help them understand the risk of sexual violence, but also to teach the valuable skills of Direct, Distract and Delegate to students who may witness something and have the opportunity to intervene. This type of bystander intervention program has been tested and shown to be effective as a way to reduce sexual violence.
As valuable as programs such as “Turning the Red Zone Green” are, I find myself hoping that this isn’t the first time these new college students have heard this message. I hope that parents, teachers and other significant adults have had these conversations as the children they love have grown into young adults now ready for the college experience. I hope that we are, all of us, teaching the children we love the skills they need to be the adults we hope them to be — in elementary, middle and high school. As our children grow, the issues they face will change and become ever more complex — from the school-yard bully and the “mean girls” (traumatic as those experiences may be) to sexual and relationship violence as they try to navigate the relationships and responsibilities of adulthood.