Training Aims to Educate Restaurant Servers About Sex Assault Awareness

Jul 12, 2017

When you close your eyes and think of the last time you were out with family or friends for dinner or happy hour either at home or on vacation, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Not sexual assault – yet there is a reasonable chance you were witness to the beginning of a heavily intoxicated individual being taken advantage of, or a drink being spiked. It wasn’t fear of getting involved that prevented you from saying something to stop it, but the fact that you didn’t trust your gut, or your eyes, to believe what just happened.

That’s something Brie Niciewski, sexual abuse and assault prevention coordinator at the St. Francis Counseling Center in Brant Beach, is hoping to change with a new program aimed at educating bartenders and restaurant servers on how they can intervene, specifically when drugs or alcohol are used to facilitate sexual assault. She’s already trained the staff at Plantation in Harvey Cedars and daddy O in Brant Beach with the hope of reaching more across the county. The training is partially supported by grant funds from the state Sexual Assault and Rape Care and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant monies, both administered by the state Department of Children and Families, Division on Women.

“It’s important that people are aware that this happens, and that it’s OK to say something,” Niciewski said, noting between 2011 and 2016, roughly 46 percent of reported sexual assaults in Ocean County were drug or alcohol related. The average age of victims was 24, she said.

Depending on the drug, as well as other factors, it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes for a drug to metabolize, she said. The effects can last between six and 12 hours.

“We’re never going to stop people from drugging other people,” she said, ”but we can stop people from being assaulted.”

That’s the genesis of her training program; bystander intervention, a set of skills that can be developed through education, learning to trust your gut and working in a safe environment that encourages employees to say something if they see something.

“People need validation to know it’s OK to step in when there is a problem,” Niciewski said, adding it’s better to be wrong than to ignore a gut feeling you may have.

Whether witnesses take action or not is often dictated by social cues from others, she said. The more witnesses to an event, the less likely someone is to act. The opposite is also true, she added, noting if one person steps up to help, more will do the same. Of the 60 percent of witnesses to a violent crime, only 15 percent will do something to prevent it, Niciewski said. Called the bystander effect, it stems from the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, she said. There were 38 eyewitnesses to the crime but no one did anything to prevent the attack that killed her.

“It can happen to anyone anywhere,” Niciewski said of a sexual assault. “It can be taking advantage of someone’s voluntary use of alcohol, or intentionally drugging someone.”

Often, signs of someone being intentionally drugged look exactly like someone who is highly intoxicated, but there are subtle differences, she said.

“If it’s out of character for someone, then it could be drugs,” Niciewski said, adding would-be victims often give signs they are being bothered and not interested in the attention someone else is giving them. “Their body language will tell you – if they turn away from someone.”

Still, people need to feel safe before they step up and say something, she said, and she applauded the atmosphere that exists at Plantation.

“There is a strong sense of family,” she said, noting after the training the staff recalled instances where they did intervene and how it worked for them.

A bystander can intervene in three ways, Niciewski said. Direct intervention is addressing the situation yourself, she explained. Distracting from the situation refocuses the attention, and can be easily accomplished by spilling a drink and offering to help clean it up. Delegating is the final way a bystander can intervene, she said, and it’s basically asking someone else for help.

“Intervene at the earliest point possible,” she said, adding intervening does not always mean confronting. Before stepping into a situation, though, Niciewski said, make sure you’re not putting yourself in danger or making the situation worse.

— Gina G. Scala

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