What Happened When 26 High Schools Took Part in an Experiment to Help Prevent Sexual Assault

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In 2010, the same year he became principal of J. M. Atherton High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas Aberli agreed to let his students take part in something called Green Dot.

The program uses a technique known as bystander intervention in an effort to help prevent sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other kinds of gender violence in schools. The concept of bystander intervention is simple, at least in theory: Many cases of sexual and dating violence can be thwarted if a bystander intervenes in time.

Green Dot provides an annual training session to students, then identifies “popular opinion leaders,” who receive additional training that they then pass on to their peers. Students are taught the “three Ds” of bystander intervention: direct, delegate, and distract. A direct approach might be offering someone a ride home if he or she appears upset or drunk. Delegating might involve asking someone else, such as a friend who better knows the people involved and might be more trusted, to intervene in a potentially abusive situation. Distracting could mean something as simple as butting into a conversation when someone appears uncomfortable and trapped. Other actions include telling a teacher when you notice your friend looks frightened during a fight with a significant other, speaking up to friends if they say something that feeds into rape culture, like that “someone deserved to be raped,” and asking someone who looks distraught if they are OK or need help.

After adopting Green Dot, Aberli said he quickly noticed some positive changes among the students at Atherton High School, but he knew his observations were only anecdotal. “I think it’s been effective,” Aberli tells Teen Vogue. “But then again, it’s hard to measure things that don’t happen.”

New research from the University of Kentucky may provide a clearer answer. In the largest and longest study of its kind, researchers studied 26 Kentucky high schools over five years. Half of the schools used the Green Dot program, and half did not offer any bystander intervention training. They found that by years three and four of the study, victimization rates were about 12% lower in schools that offered the Green Dot program than in those that did not. That translated to 120 fewer incidents of sexual violence in the third year of the study and 88 fewer in the fourth year.

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