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At Conn College, Green Dot program changing culture around sexual violence

Imagine a map filled with dots, many of them red. Each red dot represents a time when a person used his or her hands or words to hurt someone else.

But there are green dots, too — times when a third person stepped in to intervene or to remove the victim from the situation.

Thanks to Darcie Folsom, outgoing director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy at Connecticut College, the number of green dots is growing. Earlier this month — with the help of 23 graduating seniors who didn’t want to leave without a crash course in bystander intervention — she surpassed the 1,000 mark as she personally trained her 1,014th student in the Green Dot program. It teaches strategies to intervene, directly or indirectly, in situations where violence is occurring or about to occur.

It was a bittersweet milestone for Folsom, as with last week’s graduation she began looking toward her next endeavor: being a senior trainer with the national Green Dot team.

For a long time, Folsom said, the narrative around prevention focused on how not to be victim or a perpetrator. But bystanders, she pointed out, outnumber those folks 40 to 1.

“The bystander intervention lens takes away gender,” she said. “It takes away the idea we have to label somebody. It looks at behavior and says everyone can be a part of the solution.”

Folsom came to Conn in 2010 from Safe Futures, where she had been working as a community education involvement coordinator. In the seven years that followed, the campus transformed.

Incoming students learn about the opportunity to take the six-hour training, which is voluntary. Sports teams host Green Dot games. Students eagerly tell their peers they should take the course, too.

Across campus, countless interventions already have occurred.

Take McKenzie Griffith Potter, for example. A rising senior, she has worked closely with Folsom as an intern with the college’s Think S.A.F.E. (Sexual Assault-Free Environment) Project.

Just a few weeks ago, at a school-sanctioned social gathering, she put her Green Dot training to use when a person she knew of but didn’t know well made a comment that visibly upset her friend.

Griffith Potter first offered her friend a way out of the situation — a technique the Green Dot training calls “distraction” — by asking her if she wanted to use the restroom.

Griffith Potter then employed “delegation,” another of the program’s “three D’s.” She told one of her better acquaintances in the group that the person’s comment was offensive. That person then addressed the situation with the original comment-maker.

“I think that, as human beings, we say things and do things and have no idea how impactful our actions are,” she said. “It’s better to address the situation to prevent replicated situations.”

Griffith Potter said she learned of the program during Admitted Students Day, when Folsom was on a panel talking about it.

“You knew right away, when you arrived at Conn, that Green Dot was significant not only to students, but also faculty and staff,” Griffith Potter recalled. “I wanted to be a part of something the whole community was behind.”

She took the training about two-and-a-half years ago, she said. Like the other students, she learned about the psychology of being a bystander — how experiments show, if nobody else in the vicinity thinks a situation’s a big deal, you’re less likely to think it’s a big deal. She learned about barriers to intervention, like not wanting to confront upperclassmen, for example. And she learned how to recognize “red dot” situations in the first place.

"Walking out of that first training gave me a sense of confidence," Griffith Potter said, explaining that she learned of new resources she could turn to. "It changed my alertness."

The program is rooted in preventing sexual assault, but as Griffith Potter’s example shows, its strategies can be implemented in a wide variety of situations.

Folsom knows that well — she hears from students and alumni about their use of the program all the time. In her office space, students frequently update a billboard with anonymous examples. Past trainees regularly share examples in a Facebook group, too.

One of Folsom’s favorite examples took place at a bar in Washington, D.C. A former Green Dot student noticed a woman there seemed uncomfortable with her date. When that woman went to the bathroom, the student followed her in and asked about the situation.

The date, it turned out, was a blind one. And the woman was quite uncomfortable, but didn’t know how to safely leave.

When the two went back out, they acted like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in ages. The woman apologized to her date, but said she was going to catch up with her “old friend.” They left the bar together, but soon parted ways.

“Who knows if anything bad would’ve happened,” Folsom said. “But if something rattles your gut, what’s the worst that can happen if you ask?”

Both Folsom and Griffith Potter said they believe each intervention helps create the tone that violence won’t be tolerated. In time, they hope, fewer green dots will be needed because fewer red dots will exist.

Folsom isn’t worried about the future of Green Dot courses at Conn, which, under her watch, occurred a couple of times a semester. Typically 15 to 50 students filled each session. As the college is, the classes were about 60 percent female, 40 percent male.

“I’m so excited for whoever gets to take on this position,” she said. “They’re not starting on a campus where they have to convince the administration this is important. The groundwork has been done.”


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