Zaman: Dartmouth Stands By

For all of its rhetoric about bystander intervention, the College is no model.

by Raniyan Zaman | 1/3/19 2:20am

Before I’d ever set foot on campus, I knew about Dartmouth’s emphasis on bystander culture. I took the same sexual assault prevention courses that my peers did and clicked through the same slides on bystander intervention as the other members of the Class of 2022. (Do something yourself! Bring others in! Ingenious alternatives.) I sat through the same New Student Orientation talks on the College’s very rigorous, serious, vague efforts to combat sexual assault. The pen I almost exclusively used during my first quarter has the letters “DBI,” or Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, printed on it — if that’s not the ultimate sign of how ubiquitous DBI’s branding is on campus then I don’t know what is.

DBI, in a nutshell, aims to teach and encourage students to recognize “concerning behaviors” (supposedly, this is not just limited to sexual and gender-based violence, although that’s most often the context in which DBI comes up) and intervene in some way, as a responsible bystander, to prevent it. The College’s constant references to DBI are supposed to signal its ever-growing commitment to bystander culture and the goal behind it of tackling campus sexual assault. But like many of the administration’s words and gestures when it comes to Dartmouth’s rape culture, this rings hollow. The very fact that the College advocates for bystander intervention so strongly, with almost nothing else substantial to supplement its efforts to counter sexual assault and support survivors, is damning evidence of how little it actually cares.

This is not a criticism of bystander culture itself. It’s absolutely essential that students look out for one another and do their best to pull one another out of dangerous situations, and commendable when they do. DBI should be student-led, pushed forward among peers, passed down from upperclassmen to incoming students, and promoted in Greek houses — and in many ways, it already is. But when the administration endorses bystander culture as official College policy, it practically translates to the administration handing off the burden of identifying and fending off potential rapists to students. It ducks issues of justice and survivors’ needs entirely. The College is absolved of any blame, guilt, or responsibility as it turns a blind eye to Dartmouth’s hostile environments and relies on students to take care of each other, shielded by the legitimacy of the research behind bystander culture. (And this research is flimsy anyway — while studies do show bystander intervention reduces sexual assault, there’s no clear consensus on how much. As researcher Bianca Fileborn points out in The Conversation, “we know surprisingly little about bystander intervention ‘in action,’” particularly regarding types and efficacy.) But while students are watching out for one another, how is the school watching out for us? How is it supporting survivors, bringing justice to perpetrators, and aiding responsible bystanders?

This is all in addition to the many limitations of bystander intervention, an reality especially highlighted by the high number of sexual assaults that occur behind closed doors. Several examples are detailed in the plaintiffs’ complaint in a high-profile lawsuit filed against Dartmouth, which alleges that three prominent professors in the psychological and brain sciences department sexually abused scores of Dartmouth women over nearly two decades. The complaint alleges that when one plaintiff was a Dartmouth undergraduate, “a male student broke into her dorm room and raped her.” (The College allegedly never even tried to identify the rapist.) DBI’s tips about asking someone to Late Night Collis are utterly useless in the face of such violence. Dartmouth should be advocating something more substantial than a weak temporary solution that leaves students to handle attackers on their own, but it isn’t.

Even worse, for all of their empty rhetoric about responsible bystander intervention, Dartmouth administrators almost certainly may no longer be called models to follow. The complaint in the aforementioned lawsuit demonstrates that the lawsuit isn’t so much about perpetrators or victims as much as it is about bystanders, the people who knew and did nothing. The College has reached the zenith of hypocrisy when it comes to bystander intervention. The most strikingly awful thing in the plaintiffs’ complaint, apart from the sexual abuse and trauma that potentially generations of Dartmouth women experienced over decades at the hands of three professors, is the way Dartmouth administrators and offices allegedly ignored and minimized every allegation of abuse that came their way. Prominent bystanders — ones who did nothing to address the situation even when explicitly told that students were being harassed and attacked — include, according to the complaint, College personnel David Bucci, Jay Hull and Thalia Wheatley. Private investigator Jennifer Davis, hired by the College to look into allegations, is also accused of acting irresponsibly by allegedly disclosing confidential information to the public and providing survivors with misinformation.

Upon further examination, the term “bystander” suggests innocence that Dartmouth cannot claim. When presented with such overwhelming evidence of inappropriate, predatory behavior and subsequently failing to act, then taking the wrong steps upon finally acting, one moves from being a bystander to being an enabler. Failing to intervene that many times makes these enablers nearly as culpable as the attackers.

Being urged to intervene by an administration that not only doesn’t practice what they preach, but has instead abandoned respectable values entirely, is sickening and demoralizing. Before Dartmouth can “move forward,” it needs to acknowledge how and why it regressed.