Kentucky study finds a key to reducing sexual violence in high schools

Solving sexual violence in high schools

A UK study found that bystander training effectively reduced sexual violence in Kentucky high schools.
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A UK study found that bystander training effectively reduced sexual violence in Kentucky high schools.

University of Kentucky researchers have found that bystander training can significantly decrease sexual violence in high schools.

According to an upcoming article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the five-year study looked at 26 high schools across Kentucky over five years. In half of those schools, about 10 percent of the students were given Green Dot training, a method invented at UK that teaches a communal method of getting involved in a safe and responsible way when witnessing possible sexual violence or coercion. In the schools that didn’t receive the training, sexual violence — including harassment, stalking and dating violence reported by students — remained steady or went up overall. In schools that received the training, incidents of sexual violence decreased by as much as 50 percent.

Preliminary results were released in 2014 and looked promising, but the final product went far beyond the researchers’ expectations.

“It’s a huge shift,” said Ann Coker, a public health professor who has an endowed chair in UK’s Center for Research on Violence Against Women. “This is the first school-based trial of its kind.”

Before the study began, about 18.5 percent of students at the 26 schools had reported experiencing sexual violence, and 13 percent reported dating violence. Starting in 2010, the researchers recorded 300 incidents of sexual violence in the schools designated for training and 211 in the control schools not getting training.


By 2014, the trained schools reported 157 incidents, and the control schools reported 245.

Coker and her colleagues, including Heather Bush, Emily Clear and Eileen Recktenwald, director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, said the study was unique in several ways. First, the Green Dot training was conducted by staff members from rape crisis centers around the state. They, in turn, trained groups of students identified by their schools as “thought leaders” from many areas, between 10 percent and 13 percent of the student body. Every year between 2011 and 2014, researchers returned to all 26 schools and surveyed students on sexual violence, whether it was committed by them or experienced.

“You’re only training 13 percent of the school, and it’s effective for the whole school,” Coker said. “It turns out we’re measuring cultural change.”

That might be in part due to Green Dot training, which was created by former UK researcher Dorothy Edwards for college students. Instead of telling girls to be careful and boys that “no means no,” it teaches students to recognize potentially dangerous situations and to intervene in safe ways. For example, if you see a couple fighting and the girl looks scared, you might ask her if she needs help, or get a teacher. It teaches a communal way of thinking that can quickly spread outward, experts say.

Numerous colleges have adopted bystander training programs similar to Green Dot, but this is the first major study that gives evidence-based proof that they work, the researchers said.

The entire $1.6 million study was financed through grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, in terms of public policy, the study shows a cost-effective fix. It costs about $25,000 for a school to bring in trainers for students, who then help train entire student bodies.

“We can talk about programs, but now we have real data and we can show we really are seeing a reduction in violence,” Recktenwald said. “This impacts not only young women but young men.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford