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New Penn workshop gives students tools to combat sexual assault. 

Credit: Julio Sosa

This fall, Penn has seen an explosion of conversation and controversy over the issue of sexual violence — a problem highlighted by the release of the sexual assault survey conducted by the Association of American Universities, whose disappointing findings were published in September.

The administration is working to address sexual violence in a variety of ways: As a direct result of the survey, the freshman pre-orientation module on sexual violence and healthy relationships will be made available for all undergraduates, and regular student surveys will include questions on the topic.

One initiative, however, was developed even before the survey results were released, and it puts the power of change in the hands of students. The program, which is called Penn Anti-Violence Educators, brings paid student leaders to campus organizations to teach members of the organizations how to be “active bystanders.”

In the workshops, which range from 60 to 90 minutes, students learn how to safely intervene in potentially harmful situations, which can be as small as a rape joke or as serious as assault.

“It’s really just, I think, about empowering people with a very simple but hopefully effective tool kit for intervention and recognition of harmful behavior,” College senior Cathryn Peirce, a PAVE educator, said.

The workshop includes a short video depicting a harmful situation with points at which active bystanders could have intervened, followed by discussion and interactive exercises. “It does demand a little more reflection and also participation, which I think is crucial,” Pierce said.

College junior Sarah Gubara, another PAVE educator, was inspired to join the program following her own experience with sexual violence.

“I feel like the things we try to do is create a culture where we’re just more aware of the things we say, the things we do, that other people do,” she said. “That’s one of the main points we emphasize.”

But not everyone was entirely satisfied with their experience. Wharton sophomore Laura Kuder said she appreciated the program overall but wished it would focus more on relationship violence rather than the particular scenario of meeting someone at a bar.

“I think it’s really important to also talk about relationships because that’s when the actual abuse, in my opinion, is even worse — because you think you can trust them,” Kuder said. “I think that was completely left out of the workshop.”

However, the program collects feedback from participants after they go through the workshop, and it hopes to take those changes into account as the program moves forward.

Director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Jessica Mertz hopes to expand the program, which currently partners with college houses and Panhellenic sororities, next semester by connecting with groups like athletic teams. Mertz also hopes to hire more educators to more efficiently communicate the ultimate message.

“We try to show how easy it is to be an active bystander,” Gubara said. “Who else can we rely on if we can’t rely on each other?”

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