The advocates at GaDuGi SafeCenter frequently meet sexual assault survivors in stark hospital rooms after the attack has happened.
But in an effort to reduce sexual violence in Lawrence, the local sexual assault support center is turning its attention to activities that occur earlier in the evening.
The groundwork for sexual assault is often laid in establishments where the victim and perpetrator are surrounded by friends and having a good time.
“There is the consumption of alcohol. (People) unknowingly pass out, are isolated from friends or walk home through a park. That is where we work on solutions,” GaDuGi regional outreach coordinator Chrissy Heikkila said.
Through a $2,500 grant from the United Way, GaDuGi is teaming up with the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, Kansas University Office of Student Success and local drinking establishments to brand bars as SafeBars.
“We are hoping that SafeBars are part of the answer, not the problem,” Heikkila said.
Abe & Jake’s is among the nine bars that have signed on so far, partly because its general manager, Ryan Lantz, recognizes the role alcohol plays in sexual assault and domestic battery.
“I think we want to be good stewards of the community and part of that is taking responsibility for our part in all of that,” he said.
Nationwide, 50 to 80 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol. In Lawrence, GaDuGi was fielding questions from local bars about what they should do when they see behavior that was questionable.
“Alcohol isn’t causing the assault, it’s more of a tool used in the assault,” Heikkila said.
One of the key components of being a SafeBar is trained staff that know how to properly respond to situations that could lead to a sexual assault later in the evening. Bar staff might step in to help an intoxicated patron find a way home or to make sure individuals aren’t separated from the friends with whom they arrived. Each training session has a representative from the district attorney’s office to answer legal questions.
The SafeBar brand fits nicely with another concept circulating throughout Lawrence: the buddy system. Part of a KU marketing effort, the Jayhawk Buddy System asks that when students go out, they do so with friends who keep an eye on each other throughout the evening.
“We are trying to encourage and capitalize on the fact that most students do get home safely almost every evening,” said Frank DeSalvo, associate vice provost for student success. “By buddying up, the students’ odds are in their favor that they are going to be connected to someone who is going to employ effective behaviors to get them home safely.”
While the SafeBar Alliance aims to prevent sexual assaults, the buddy system intends to keep students “out of the back of police cars and ambulances,” DeSalvo said. But both efforts are sending messages to empower friends and bystanders to act, he said.
The SafeBar Alliance also includes giving bars coasters with messages about finding a safe ride home, planning ahead and following the buddy system. And bars will receive business cards that list the telephone numbers of taxi cabs and information on bus services. Those cards will be handed out to the patrons that need them.
Any bar can become a SafeBar as long as its staff members undergo the training and attend meetings of the SafeBar Alliance. The bars also must display materials that provide information on safety.
“It’s been really rewarding to see that bars do care and they are not the problem,” Heikkila said. “They are policing their own bars and do care about the outcomes at the end of the evening.”