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Ulster County, N.Y. takes on sexual assault

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Ulster County, N.Y. is training bar staff to help prevent sexual assault 

A new sexual assault prevention program aimed primarily at the college student population has taken root in Ulster County, N.Y., which saw about 300 calls for sexual assault in 2015.

The new program got started last fall, after the county’s Crime Victims Assistance staff, Sarah Kramer-Harrison and Cynthia Craft, began hearing about potential victims asking waiters or bartenders for a special drink that signified a cry for assistance.

“We started seeing on social media that there was a trend toward these ‘Angel Shots’ … basically a drink that would identify to the bartender if requested by a victim, that they were in need of some kind of help, whether it was a cab or getting out of some kind of situation,” said Kramer-Harrison.

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For more information, contact Kramer-Harrison or call 845.340.3445

The two started talking about it with others at the office and decided they needed to do more. “We thought, ‘Gee that’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who is in trouble and also bartenders can have very deep lines of people looking to purchase drinks so if we’re looking at bartenders to intervene for people, that’s a lot of variables,” Craft said. “We started talking about ‘Is there a better way to do this? And what would that look like?’”

The program, the first of its kind in New York, provides training for bar staff and other employees with a goal of preventing sex assaults. The Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Unit launched its program in September in the college town of New Paltz.  Currently there are three bars participating in the program, and the county hopes to expand the program to other bars in the area.

In addition to bartenders, the training includes other restaurant staff members About 35 have been trained so far. “We start with information about the program, look at the numbers of sexual assaults, look at local numbers,” said Craft. “Then we look at behaviors. Prevention, historically, has put the onus on the victim but new research is looking at offender behavior.”

Bar staff is told to be on the lookout for things like people who may be aggressively flirting and “not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Craft said.

When identifying behaviors, the team draws on their experience. “Our office has 39 years of experience that we draw from, that translates into 39 years of sexual assault stories that have guided this training and informed the behaviors we look for,” Kramer-Harrison said. “We continue to attend trainings and read books that focus on offender behavior.  Cynthia is a probation officer and has experience from working directly with offenders.” 

Other behaviors to look for include somebody who is buying a lot of drinks for someone who is not fully aware of what’s going on, or someone leaving with someone who is intoxicated and might need help. Training includes how to intervene if bar staff sees a problem.

The goal is to shift from victim behavior to offender behavior and bystander intervention.

“Bystander intervention would be to recognize there is a problem, take ownership about intervening in one of three ways,” Kramer-Harrison said. “Those ways being to directly intervene, delegate (point it out to someone else to intervene, maybe a member of security) or distract so the person at risk is presented with another option like a cab home, connect them to the people they came with or something of that nature.” 

After the staff has completed the training, the bars receive a certificate so SUNY (State University of New York) New Paltz students and other residents will know that the establishment cares about this issue and the community at large.

Reaction from bar employees has been positive. “Their feedback of what the problem really looks like and what they’ve experienced has really helped with shaping the training and key in on the more necessary focal points we really need to pay attention to,” Craft said. During the training, the county learned from bar staff that one trend they are seeing is that “troublemakers” are often people who come to the bar from outside the community.

Kramer-Harrison said they have been discussing how to measure the program’s success. “We’ve been talking about that,” she said. “We’re intervening before [a sexual assault might occur], so we can’t measure sexual assaults that aren’t taking place.” They will look at the number of sex assaults reported, but again they said that due to more awareness of the issue because of the program, they could see an uptick in reports of sex assaults that previously may have gone unreported, they said.

But the response from law enforcement as well as the community has been encouraging, Kramer-Harrison said. “This has been a positive impact for their [the bar community’s] staff. They are able to tune into their instincts in a more confident way.”

Funding for the program comes from a variety of sources including the county’s Department of Health and general county funds. A Department of Criminal Justice Services grant was used to launch the initiative.

While a specific dollar amount has not been attached to the program, the main cost is staff time, Kramer-Harrison noted. “Our salaries may be different from other programs that would seek to implement this training.  It took between 80 to 100 hours to create, cultivate buy-in and launch the program.  We co-teach the training out of our local police department so the cost in man hours is seven hours per training — two staff members at 3.5 hours per training; this includes prep and set up time.”

Three or four counties in New York have reached out to find out more about the program. Advice from Kramer-Harrison and Craft: Partner with local bars — they may have an association similar to the New Paltz Bar and Tavern Association —  partner with local city or town police as well as the local college.

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