Summit County bars and restaurants taking up the fight against sexual assault

Jack Queen
Still life. pour or whiskey in to glass.
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Late last year, law enforcement agencies conducted an undercover operation that revealed blatant drug sales occurring in Summit County bars, primarily in Breckenridge.

In most cases, the drug was cocaine. In one, however, an individual allegedly sold a date rape drug across the counter of a bar, District Attorney Bruce Brown said.

It was a stark example of how bars can serve as hunting grounds for sexual aggressors. In towns like Breckenridge, with its active drinking scene and throngs of tourists looking to blow off steam, it’s all the more important for bar staff to be vigilant and look out for their patrons, local advocates and law enforcement say.

“A lot of (sex assault) cases stem from the bar scene in Summit County,” said Kathleen Maher, violence prevention coordinator for St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. “It’s a great place to live, but we have the same problems that everywhere else has, and it’s kind of amplified by the party culture.”

“A lot of (sex assault) cases stem from the bar scene in Summit County. It’s a great place to live, but we have the same problems that everywhere else has, and it’s kind of amplified by the party culture.”Kathleen MaherViolence prevention coordinator for St. Anthony Summit Medical Center

Maher, who also works with Summit Advocates for Victims of Sexual Assault, is leading the effort to bring Safe Bars training to the county. The curriculum teaches bar staff “bystander intervention,” or techniques they can use to recognize signs of aggressive sexual behavior and stop it before it escalates.

That could mean approaching someone who’s being sexually aggressive and distracting them, maybe by telling them their friends are looking for them. It could also mean asking a target’s friends if they’re OK, or even contacting security and having the aggressor escorted out.

Last year, the Forensic Nurse Examiner at St. Anthony saw 107 cases of non-accidental injury, up from 60 the year before. Those include all types of violence, but Maher said the overwhelming majority of them are domestic violence or sexual assault.

That year-over-year increase is likely skewed by neighboring jurisdictions’ more frequent use of the Summit FNE, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said, although he acknowledged that places with thriving bar scenes and plenty of alcohol-fueled events may tend to see more sexual assault cases.

“When you look at the sheer number of people, the sheer number of bars, the amount of drinking, it’s not uncommon to get a call after one of these big events,” he said. “Alcohol can be a major factor, but there are a whole lot of factors.”

Those could include the simple fact that people on vacation tend to be less cautious than they normally might be, Bruce Brown said.

“We have seen more cases in the recent past of sexual assault that was facilitated by the use of intoxicants … . We also have a high percentage of seasonal workers who tend to be young and single, so they’re more likely to engage in high-risk behavior.”

Aggressors typically follow a distinct pattern: First, they select a target, then “test” them with some type of sexual behavior to see what they can get away with. They then isolate the target, and finally, assault them.

If bystanders can learn to recognize this cycle and disrupt it in a non-confrontational way, the thinking goes, they can prevent sexual violence.

“We’re not saying that bar staff haven’t been stepping in before. A lot of them are already doing the right things,” Maher said. “This curriculum is about building on that.”

In October, Safe Bars instructors from Washington, D.C., where the program started, came to Summit and taught a group of people from Advocates, St. Anthony, law enforcement and the restaurant industry how to be trainers.

As part of the county’s nascent Safe Bars pilot program, those people recently trained the staff of Ollie’s Pub and Grub in Breckenridge.

“There were so many stories and examples from that training,” Maher said. “From their perspective, they see it all.”

Going forward, Maher said she hopes to continue the pilot program and fine-tune the training with several more bars before fully implementing it across the county.

From there, the program could replicate the Safe Bars model in other cities, possibly by encouraging establishments that serve alcohol to include the training as a regular part of new hire on-boarding.

“Ideally, we’d love for all of the bars and all of the restaurants to have the training,” Maher said. “The success we had at Ollie’s allowed us to see that vision going forward.”

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