Self-Defense Classes, Bystander Training Embraced at BU

By Adrienne Todela
BU News Service

BOSTON – College safety is a key issue Student Life Coordinator Shelley Bertolino discusses when she welcomes international students at Boston University’s Center for English Language and Orientation Programs.

“I always ask them, ‘So do you think Boston is a safe city?’ I overwhelmingly hear, ‘Yes! It’s really safe.’ Then I ask them, ‘What’s not safe?’ And they’ll say, ‘Texas,’” Bertolino said.

A Boston resident for over 30 years, Bertolino pointed out that although Boston is safe for the most part, the New England metropolis still has a dark side.

“I think they have a little bit of false sense of security here. I think they think it may be a little safer than it is. But yes, in fact, things do happen,” she said.

Boston is a college town. People from all over the United States and the world flock here to study in one of its 33 different colleges and universities. But it is also, as most cities are, an urban jungle. It has the chaotic hustle and bustle of the crowds, the rush of the zooming cars, and the sound of sirens coming from every direction.

With college campuses like that of BU being in the middle of it all, things do happen here. The early October armed robberies and the suspected Peeping Tom on Ashford Street are only two of the many crimes on or around BU’s campus reported this past semester.

With its students regularly facing the risk of crime and violence, BU advocates two programs to enhance violence prevention among their community: self-defense classes and lectures on bystander intervention.

Self-Awareness is Self-Defense

They were ready for the beat-down session. Clad in BU Police Department gear, they marched to a door leading to a back stairwell of the Case Center. In the cold, dim-lit space, 11 women huddled, checked each other’s gear, practiced their stances and waited.

These women, Bertolino being one of them, were taking the Rape Aggression Defense final exam. Although they trained as a group for four sessions, each of them would have to take the test alone.

One by one, the women were given five risky situations where they had to escape from the hands — or in one scenario from the full body — of their perpetrator, in this case an instructor wearing a heavily padded suit.

They all passed.

The Rape Aggression Defense Program is a self-defense class exclusively for women. According to its website, it is a nationwide program that teaches self-defense strategies using defensive tactics, techniques and education. Established in 1989, R.A.D. has now taught over 900,000 women.

Seen as an important resource for college safety R.A.D. is offered in hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide. At BU, Sgt. Jefferey Burke and his team of 12 certified instructors conduct R.A.D. classes. This fall semester the team ran five classes for over 100 students.

Sgt. Burke, who has over 27 years of police service, said college students, with their fast-paced and tech-savvy lifestyle, generally do not have a good sense of awareness while walking along the street. He said the lack of caution is one major reason why college safety is threatened with thefts, robberies and assaults.

“I tell the students that they are viewed as rich kids if they go to BU no matter if they are or not. The students here have the goods: backpacks full of laptops, cell phones, jewelry and wallets with cash. If you watch them for a couple of minutes, you’ll see, ‘Wow, they have no clue that I’m even looking at them’,” he said. “The bad guys watch you and what kind of person you are: unaware, aloof and not paying attention. Perfect’,” Sgt. Burke said.

To resolve this problem, Sgt. Burke said R.A.D. teaches students how to become more aware of their surroundings and avoid risky situations. According to him, R.A.D. defines 90 percent of self-defense as risk awareness, risk reduction, risk recognition, and avoidance education.

Sgt. Burke explained that the idea of prevention is “to be aware enough of your surroundings that nothing really surprises you at the last minute.”

The beat-down session is Sgt. Burke’s favorite class: “You see the development from little to no skill — from no technique developing to somebody now who has got more confidence, walking into the room.”

Bertolino said it was effective to end R.A.D. with the beat-down session because it puts everything students have learned into context. For Bertolino and the others, the punches, the kicks and the shouts all became real during the final exam.

“I was really letting loose like something bad was going to happen to me, and I was fighting as hard as I could,” Bertolino said. “The classes prior to that were all theoretical … so it’s really important to have [instructors] dress up and attack us during the last day.”

Twenty-seven year-old Bruna Trade, who took the classes with Bertolino, said she appreciates how R.A.D. taught her the importance of self-respect and showed her she has the ability to protect herself.

“It is important to know that you have a limit, and the limit is yourself — to respect yourself and to see if someone is invading your privacy or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, you have a composite person you have to defend from something else and you have to believe that you have this power,” Trade said.

Stop, Look, Listen and Help

Last year the BU men’s hockey team was under heavy investigation after two of their own were charged with sexual assault. The task force commissioned to do the investigation released their findings this fall, which seemed to only dig a deeper hole for the team.

The report, published by BU on the university website and by the Boston Globe this September, described more alleged sexual assaults and inappropriate behavior against the team. Right after the report was released many of those who followed the story questioned why other players or staff members who had some knowledge of the criminal acts did not try to stop them.

“Why weren’t the members of that hockey team intervening? Why didn’t they step up?” said Jarrod Chin, director of training and curriculum at Northeastern University’s Sport in Society.

The bystander effect had taken over these players, Chin said. He explained the phenomenon happens when bystanders witnessing an incident are reluctant to intervene thinking that someone else would do something.

In some situations though, no one ever intervenes.

The Bystander Intervention Approach strives to help resolve this situation. It is another violence prevention technique focusing on empowering bystanders, especially men, to help prevent potentially risky situations from happening.

BU’s Sexual Assault Response and Prevention (SARP) Center hosted its first lectures on bystander training this fall. Although the program mainly concentrates on sexual assault awareness, it advocates bystanders to do something for all types of criminal situations, including theft and robbery.

“The whole approach is thinking about in most violent situations where there is a perpetrator and a victim, there are also bystanders there,” said Chin. “These are people who witness it or indirectly hear about it who are in positions of power to be able to do something to intervene and directly stop it.”

The approach was created under the Mentors in Violence Prevention, which was established at Sport in Society in 1993. MVP is one of the pioneers in third party involvement and intervention for assaults, robberies, drunk driving and other modes of violence.

MVP has introduced the Bystander Intervention Approach to hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, according to Chin.

Antonio Arrendel, a former colleague of Chin, now leads SARP’s two-hour lectures on bystander training to an audience filled with members of BU residential life, athletics and other leadership organizations.

Benjamin McCarthy, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, attended one of the lectures and said he found the experience valuable.

“I liked the way that it put responsibility on people who otherwise wouldn’t be involved. It’s important to educate people to protect themselves, but it’s equally important to foster in people a sense of responsibility for the general well-being of others,” the 19 year-old said.

Chin discussed how society has socialized bystanders to only having two options when confronted with a violent situation: either to physically get involved or to do nothing and flee from the site.

But Chin said there are an infinite number of non-violent options bystanders can take during a risky situation. They can range from taking a picture of the assailant as evidence, giving a tip to the police or helping the potential victim with the aid of other bystanders.

Chin said bystander training has been well received as another type of violence prevention because it takes everyone into account.

“We are not looking at men as potential perpetrators. We try to be upfront and say that only a small percentage of men are perpetrating violence, but why are the majority of ‘good’ men remaining silent,” he said. “We really try to empower them as bystanders, saying, ‘You can do something about this’.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Posted by: Michelle Johnson on