Becoming better bystanders (column) |

Becoming better bystanders (column)

Last week Summit County students, parents and community members came together to view a documentary. Not so unusual in the county, where our young kids trek annually to see the wonders National Geographic produces, and where Warren Miller’s latest ski extravaganza attracts a crowd. “The Hunting Ground,” however, was in a far different vein.

When entering the auditorium all attending received a small adhesive dot. Some were white, others were different colors. Mine was orange. Before the film started the facilitators asked everyone with a colored dot to stand. About one-fifth of the people rose to their feet. The exercise provided a visual of the percentage of the population that has been sexually assaulted. While an unnerving amount of people were standing, the majority remained seated, filling the role of “bystander.”

The movie followed, a recently released film that addresses head-on sexual assault on campus. It chronicled the work of two campus rape victims turned student activists, who have devoted the last few years of their lives shining a very bright, and unflattering, light on campus handling of sexual assault. While I can’t speak to whether campus rape only recently has reached epidemic proportion, or if it’s a long-standing problem that’s no longer taboo to discuss, the film and Jon Krakauer’s recent novel, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” make now the prime time for dialog, and action to address the issues.

The stories told by the young women and men made it easy to be outraged, particularly when the victims recounted the lack of institutional support received after the assault, painting a dismal picture of campus policies and enforcement. The national debate ignited by sexual assault activists prompted the 2013 enactment of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, intended to help bolster the response to and prevention of sexual violence in higher education. While some criticize the legislation as lacking teeth, it remains a step in the right direction.

Fear of judgment accompanies rape reporting, and student activists have gone far to help other survivors get beyond this fear.

The film also has provoked a gamut of responses, from independent film accolades to vitriolic Internet attacks on its content and credibility. Sadly, we seem polarized on an issue where consensus seems obvious.

I left the evening sobered by the statistics, but feeling more melancholy than mad. I attended CU, one of the universities identified in the movie — was even a little sister at a fraternity. My dorm complex housed the basketball team, guys most students looked up to, not just because they were 6’7”. It was a great place to be, so I was chagrined that even the good guys, that I think far outnumber the criminals, are tarnished by the systemic failure to address assault. Using every available resource to prosecute sexual assault would not only help prevent further attacks, it would go far to re-establish credibility for the Greek system and athletics alike.

The panel discussion that followed the film forced me to confront my own bystander behavior, and bias. When I listened to the assault stories I often wondered how the attacks could have occurred. Why does this happen, I silently wondered. There is no other crime where we look at the victim and ask why. The question, seemingly innocent, suggests a willingness to pass judgment — the last thing a victim needs. Just listen, the panelists advised, good counsel when considering how many kids are afraid to even tell their parents when an attack occurs. Fear of judgment accompanies rape reporting, and student activists have gone far to help other survivors get beyond this fear. The panel also had advice for students, counselling them to actively look out for one another when venturing into the world. Advice the jittery parents in the room, myself included, appreciated. I have no doubt these kids took it to heart, including the several young men who attended. It was the students who impressed me most, young men and women, student athletes and scholars, surrounded by their fellow classmates who were willing to hear the hard stories and leave Summit County better bystanders, poised to make a real difference in the world.

Cindy Bargell is an attorney and mom who lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She welcomes your comments at

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