U of C bar trains staff in sexual assault prevention

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As colleges across North America address the issue of sexual assault on campus, a University of Calgary student bar is taking a proactive approach to ensuring the safety of its staff and patrons.

Workers at the Den recently completed a three-hour workshop from the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, which included training on how to identify potentially uncomfortable or dangerous scenarios, and how to appropriately intervene before the situation escalates.

Staff were taught to look for warning signs and body language from someone receiving unwanted attention, and how to help them get out of the situation without being a “vigilante.”

For instance, if a server notices a patron being harassed, a staff member can direct the victim to the bar to settle the tab as an opportunity to get out of the situation, find out if everything is OK, and see how staff can help. That way, patrons know their concerns are respected and feel comfortable asking bar staff for assistance if any conflict arises.

“Bystander intervention training is about a collective response, looking out for each other, taking concerns seriously and being able to help resolve the situation and the conflict,” said Emily Leedham, president of the Consent Awareness and Sexual Education Club at the University of Calgary, which brought the workshop to the Den.

“The training itself was really important in that it focused on how to give the person who is experiencing the harassment the power to address the situation.

“It’s about validating the experiences of someone experiencing the harassment. With a better understanding of those issues, and better support (for potential victims), it keeps the perpetrator accountable.”

Leedham said the workshop also touched on the public’s perceptions of sex, how it’s discussed in culture and what changes are needed when talking about sex.

“It gave a good foundation on what healthy sexuality looks like,” she said.

Leedham said it wasn’t any particular incident that inspired her to request training for Den staff, but rather it was part of her club’s mandate to educate students about consent as a means of sexual-assault prevention.

It made sense to start with the Den, said Jonah Ardiel, vice-president of student life with the University of Calgary’s students’ union.

“(The Den) is where people like to go kick back and relax with a beer. It’s a social setting where incidents like that could occur,” Ardiel said, adding he’d be happy to see the training expanded to other campus bars. “If people are aware the training has taken place, they are more likely to feel comfortable in a bar setting like that. And if potentially something bad did happen, the Den staff are now trained on how to intervene.”

Leedham said a lot of the past prevention and awareness efforts have been traditionally focused on the actions of potential victims, including what they should wear, where they should go and who they should be with to avoid being assaulted or harassed.

But there’s been a gradual cultural shift in the discussion around sexual-assault prevention.

Recently, California became the first state to adopt a “yes means yes” law for universities, which outlines what qualifies as consensual sex and requires students to obtain overt agreement to sex.

“There’s lots of discussion about sexual assault occurring on campuses, a lot of activism in that area,” said Becky VanTassel, community development manager with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, adding the Den was the first licensed establishment in the city to participate in the centre’s workshop.

“They brought us in, not in a reactive way, but . . . before something negative had happened. It’s really special and unique and shows how this particular workplace is, I think, really innovative in leading the way in making their culture safe for everyone who works and goes there.”


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