Last year, a former student at SUNY New Paltz went out to celebrate her birthday with some friends at a local bar. After making a few friends on the dance floor, she met a boy named Matt while looking for someone she had met earlier in the night. The next thing that she remembers is being in the men’s bathroom stall with Matt‚ his body pushing up against her.
“I was panicked because I had no idea what was going on, until it clicked and I knew what was actually happening to me,” she said. “I don’t know how much the bar staff could have done because I don’t remember much, but to start, they could make sure blacked out drunk girls are not being led into the men’s bathroom. There were so many people around even waiting outside the bathroom stall who did absolutely nothing which I’m sure you could imagine how much shame and guilt I felt after realizing that.”
Although this individual has chosen to remain anonymous, this is an unfortunately all too familiar chain of events. Bars are meant to be a positive social atmosphere, it is also an environment where alcohol is readily available, breeding a complex issue.
“Most people safely enjoy these environments but others use them to select, isolate and sometime incapacitate their target,” said Ulster County Crime Victims Advocate, Enough is Enough coordinator Cynthia Craft. “Alcohol only leads to sexual assault when there is someone present to commit that assault.”
Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has announced the creation of Ulster County Bystanders Against Sexual Assault (UCBASA) as a component of the county’s Crime Victims Assistance Program. This program will provide bystander training to bar staff and aim to prevent sexual assaults before they even happen.
UCBASA, unveiled Monday, Jan. 22, is the first program of its kind in New York State. It was launched in New Paltz with the assistance of New Paltz Town Police Chief Joe Snyder and Mike Beck, president of the New Paltz Tavern Association.
“It’s a proactive approach to solve a real problem,” Beck said. “The program was excellent, my staff that attended said that it was interesting and opened their eyes to a lot of strategies that could help them. We’re all interested in protecting our customers so we really appreciated the county’s efforts to put it together.”
Kramer-Harrison and Craft created and submitted the initial proposal to the County Executive’s Office. After Hein supported the proposal, they contacted Snyder and Director of Student Development, Michelle Combs who arranged a meeting with the Tavern Association. After presenting the idea to several bar and restaurant owners and assistance from Beck, they were able to start training staff this past fall and plan to conduct more training in the spring. Snyder added that he has received nothing but positive feedback from those who have taken the course.
“We discuss the dynamics of sexual assault while increasing awareness of how sexual violence is perpetrated and its connection to nightlife,” Craft said. “We build on the skills staff already utilize and present practical ways of recognizing and intervening in high risk situations based on their particular position and establishment.”
According to M.Ed.Ulster County Crime Victims Advocate/Educator Sarah Kramer-Harrison, although it is true that the effects of alcohol on the brain impacts the victim’s ability to make decisions, thus making them more vulnerable. It is important to note the alcohol also affects offender behaviors.
“We are trying to change the culture that, knowingly or unknowingly, supports sexual assault,” she said. “We want to help the bars in Ulster County to send a clear message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated and create a safe space for everyone..”
Sexual assault encompasses a range of offenses from verbal assault or harassment to unwanted sexual contact, such as groping, to rape.
According to Snyder, the two-hour training educates bar staff on certain behaviors they should recognize to determine if someone may be in danger. This includes an individual with low inhibitions, an individual left by themselves, an individual known for suspicious behavior talking to an individual or even a group of individuals and more.
They are also trained to react and offer support by making their presence as a staff member of the establishment known, calling a ride for a potential victim or even calling the police if necessary.
“It’s really an awareness program,” Snyder said. “One sexual assault is too many, so if we can deter that from happening by really teaching people around us how to observe things, recognize and react.”
P&G’s Restaurant & Bar, McGilllicuddy’s Restaurant & Taphouse and Murphy’s Restaurant and Pub were the first to receive this training. Establishments that complete the training will receive a certificate annually, a sticker to be placed in the window and other resource materials.
Snyder said that he is excited to work with Hein and Ulster County Crime Victims (UCCV) on such an important program. He added that UCCV has been a great asset to the New Paltz Police Department (NPPD) over the course of his career in dealing with crime victims.
The Crime Victims Assistance Program offers support and services for victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes including domestic violence. Additionally, it operates a 24-hour crisis hotline which can be reached at 845-340-3442.
This program is funded through a combination of sources: the Rape Crisis grant and the Enough is Enough grant from the Department of Health, both matched with funds from Ulster County Government, and a Department of Criminal Justice Services grant.
“The most successful projects stem from a collaborative effort and community support,” Kramer-Harrison said. “We would like to extend special thanks to the Ulster County Executive’s Office and Mike Hein, New Paltz Police Chief Snyder, Mike Beck owner of P&G’s Restaurant and Bar, SUNY New Paltz Director of Student Development Michelle Combs and University Police Chief Dugatkin for helping to make this initiative successful.”
New Paltz was chosen as a pilot location to launch this program because of the relationships between NPPD, SUNY New Paltz, the Tavern Association and UCCV, and its active nightlife, frequented by college students. According to Kramer-Harrison, UCBASA is intended to be spread throughout Ulster County overtime.