Training College Students to Intervene
Alarmed by a rising incidence of sexual-assault allegations on college campuses, Sigma Nu and Zeta Tau Alpha teamed up to act. Their bystander-intervention training initiative emphasizes prevention—and is getting results.
With more than 15 million students and several million faculty and staff at U.S. institutions, campus safety is paramount for all stakeholders. Disturbingly, nearly one in four female undergraduates reported having been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct, according to a 2019 study conducted by the Association of American Universities. Fewer than a third of those respondents reported the incidents to campus or local authorities because they did not feel that they warranted follow-up—even when they involved rape.
Further, the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent has continued to rise on college campuses, which serve as home base for more than 15 million students for most of every year. ;The rate is highest for undergraduate women, among whom the reported incidence rose 3 percent (to 26.4 percent) from 2015 to 2019. Among female graduate students, the rate increased 2.4 percent (to 10.8 percent). Among male undergraduates, the incidence of nonconsensual sexual contact ticked up 1.4 percent (to 6.9 percent).
In early 2015, Sigma Nu Fraternity and Zeta Tau Alpha Women’s Fraternity noted with alarm the rising prevalence of campus sexual assault allegations and resolved to act. However, when the organizations looked for training and resources that could be adapted for their target collegiate audiences of more than 300 chapters and close to half a million students and alumni, they came up short. In a ground-breaking, co-ed initiative, Sigma Nu and ZTA joined forces to build a core educational program aimed at addressing the issue of sexual assault and bystander intervention on college campuses with a particular emphasis on prevention. More specifically, the program aimed to create awareness of the risks, increase participants’ knowledge and confidence to intervene in a variety of situations, and foster a supportive chapter culture.
Eventually, the program gained the support of 10 other fraternal organizations—all of which preserved the core content but tailored the programs to ensure relevance and application for their own unique audiences. The program also grew to include a wide range of scenarios including, but not limited to, sexual violence, drug abuse, hazing and alcohol misuse.
To develop the program, Sigma Nu and ZTA worked with author and program developer Aaron Boe, whose Culture Strength Program aims to help organizations apply a proactive system to prevent harmful behaviors from occurring in the first place. Staff and national volunteer leaders facilitate the chapter workshops. Programmatic elements include toolkits, talking points, PowerPoints, and other materials to support facilitators. Participants access content through a range of channels including the chapter workshops, virtual learning, simulated scenarios to allow students to envision and discuss how they would respond, and ongoing topical-question discussions.
By 2016, ZTA had offered the workshop to all 165 of its national chapters, whose membership total more than 20,000 collegians. From 2016-2017, 98 percent of Sigma Nu’s 160 North American collegiate chapters received the training, representing more than 6,200 students. Sigma Nu repeated the workshop for all of its chapters 2020. ZTA continues to offer its training upon chapter request and is assessing opportunities to offer on-site training at all of its chapters again in the future.
It is not uncommon to witness incidents of misconduct throughout our lives, but it is sometimes difficult to assess whether a situation requires our response and what that response should be. These situations are often exacerbated on college and university campuses, where students live and study in close proximity and must navigate scenarios that require high situational and self-awareness. Together, Sigma Nu and ZTA established a first-of-its-kind, co-ed coalition of 12 fraternal organizations that are collaboratively tackling some of higher education’s most pressing campus safety.
Assessment is a key component of the fraternal groups’ efforts. Among Sigma Nu participants, pre- and post-evaluations show encouraging results:
More than 98 percent of workshop participants now recognize the need to intervene in a spectrum of situations.
Nearly 98 percent now know direct and indirect actions they can apply to defuse potentially problematic situations and know multiple tools they can apply in emergency and non-emergency situations.
ZTA reports less propensity for prioritizing chapter status over the well-being of an individual, less victim blaming, and greater survivor support. Additionally, sensitivity to the seriousness of the issues is on the rise: Downplaying assault claims is losing traction.
“The reality is that most students and people recognize the most extreme circumstances. They recognize that [something is] not okay. So, we try not to focus as much on [the extreme circumstances]. We try to reset and educate that there are a lot-less-extreme situations that warrant intervention. For example, someone is social and suddenly doesn’t come out of his room.”
—Fred Dobry, Director of Health and Safety, Sigma Nu Fraternity
“[Program participants] recognize problematic situations at a higher level and have more confidence in addressing them. We are seeing more members willing to call out issues they are seeing in their chapters and a willingness to bring that to the attention of the larger chapter and our national organization.”
—Scott Smith, Director of Leadership Development, Sigma Nu Fraternity
“As leaders on campus, our collegiate members have the power to influence campus culture. Other students take their cues from fraternity and sorority members, and these ongoing programs are preparing them to spark a much-needed shift in attitudes among all college students.”
—Brad Beacham, Executive Director, Sigma Nu Fraternity
“We’re involved with a research consulting firm and are part of a consortium that is evaluating the strength of our sisterhood program. The first year the data came back around survivor support, victim blaming and other issues, we saw dramatic increases.”
—Kyle Pendleton, Director of Harm Reduction and Education, Zeta Tau Alpha Women’s Fraternity
“One organization alone cannot eradicate the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. We all need to be advocates for healthy relationships and a safe culture, and that is why we are especially proud to partner with other fraternal organizations to take this vital step toward preventing sexual assault. We are resolved as an organization to do everything possible to empower our students through strong education and support.”
—Carolyn Carpenter, Former National President, Zeta Tau Alpha Women’s Fraternity
Enhancing Campus Safety and Security: Overview
Association of American Universities Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (2019),
Complete List of Partners: Zeta Tau Alpha, Sigma Nu, Delta Zeta, Alpha Xi Delta, Pi Beta Phi, Delta Sigma Phi, Phi Mu, Phi Gamma Delta, Kappa Alpha Order, Phi Kappa Tau, Alpha Tau Omega, Sigma Kappa