The University of Minnesota should combat campus sexual assault with widespread training in “bystander intervention,” a special advisory group says.

In a report released Thursday, a team of university leaders recommended a concerted effort to teach students how to recognize and intervene in “situations in which sexual assault may occur” to help prevent the kind of sexual assault that rocked the Twin Cities campus last year.

It also lays out a series of new steps designed to curb a problem that is bedeviling campuses nationwide.

“The model aims at fundamentally shifting the way we think and talk about sexual assault and harassment,” according to the report of the President’s Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct, which was led by John Finnegan, the dean of public health.

Among other things, it says, “We’ll ask individuals to first take a pledge committing to end campus sexual assault.” It also calls for a coordinated campaign to spread the message, including mandatory training for employees as well as students.

“It’s got to stop. We have to stop it,” said President Eric Kaler. “And history shows we have to confront it every day at the university.”

Kaler embraced the recommendations, saying the university would spend $540,000 for the first two years of the initiative. He appointed the group in May to explore new strategies for preventing sexual misconduct, following last fall’s allegations that multiple Gophers football players were involved in the sexual assault of a female student.

Five of the accused students eventually were expelled or suspended in the incident, while five others were cleared.

“We all need to learn how to intervene and support victims when as bystanders we witness sexual misconduct,” Kaler said. “If we see something, we have to say something or do something to stop it.”

The new report does not spell out exactly what bystanders are expected to do to prevent a possible assault. Instead, it’s described as an “implicit call to action” to create “a new social norm or expectation for everyone to take responsibility for helping to prevent sexual misconduct.” Kaler said there will be a 30-day comment period to collect reaction.

The advisory group said the idea was based on a national campaign called “It’s on Us,” which was launched in 2014 to promote the role of bystanders in preventing campus sexual assault.

Abby Honold, a 22-year-old U graduate and advocate for sexual assault victims, said she believes in the power of people intervening in “situations that don’t look right.”

Many college students are concerned about scenes unfolding in front of them but are unsure of how to act, said Honold, who has spoken openly of her own sexual assault. “Bystander intervention is one of those things that people don’t always think of first, but I actually think [it] is one of the most important things in sexual assault prevention,” she said.

Finnegan, who led the president’s advisory group, said the goal is to approach sexual assault as a public health problem, which means confronting it from multiple angles.

“It’s not just simply a matter of throwing something up on a web page. You really have to engage the institution,” he said.

That includes tailoring training for specific groups, such as fraternities and athletic teams, while using broader messages to reach the larger community.

“It’s really got to be about a focus on how does one develop healthy relationships,” he said. “It’s really got to be about starting to change a culture where the focus is on promoting health [and], yes definitely, about preventing the worst things like sexual assault.”

As the Faculty Senate discussed the report Thursday afternoon, some students on campus said stepping in during a troubling scene is the right thing to do.

“If you were in that situation, you would hope that someone would help you, so it’s only courteous enough that you do the same,” said Shweta Manoharan, a U freshman.

Junior Nicholas Davelis, part of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, said the group brought in the university’s Aurora Center for bystander training recently. He welcomed widespread education on the topic.

“It’s better to do something and be the, quote, bad guy at the time than to let things escalate, because everyone is better off from that proactive intervention,” Davelis said.

Not every student sees bystander intervention as the best way to curb sexual assaults. Freshman Drew Torrance said the university should concentrate on why people carry out sexual assaults.

“We need to understand why they do that, and we need to address that,” he said.

The report warns that the new campaign will likely result in more, not fewer, reports of sexual misconduct. “An uptick in reported incidents is possible if not likely in a successful campaign,” the report says, noting that one of the goals is to reduce the stigma and fear for victims coming forward.

 

beenar@startribunecom 612-673-4569

maura.lerner@startribune.com 612-673-7384