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Air Force's new sexual assault prevention program aims to change the culture

May 13, 2016 (Photo Credit: SSgt Lealan Buehrer/Air Force)
Raising awareness of sexual assault — or telling airmen to intercede when they see a bad situation develop — won't, by themselves, do enough to stop the violence. Only a profound change in the culture, sparked by tens of thousands of seemingly small acts, can do that.



​A new training regimen, adopted by the Air Force late last year, is designed ​to give ​airmen and their leaders the skills they need to begin making a difference​. The Green Dot initiative, founded by psychologist Dr. Dorothy Edwards, specifically aims to empower people to demonstrate, in ways large and small, their individual commitment to ending sexual violence.

The program operates from a simple premise. If all acts of violence motivated by the desire to assert power and intimidation — rape, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence  — were plotted on a map, they might be envisioned as red dots. So, too, might decisions to tolerate such violence, to look the other way.

Green dots, on the other hand, represent actions or words to counteract and prevent red dots. Each green dot represents a singular good decision, behavior or attitude. It could be an airman’s choice to directly intervene in an uncomfortable situation, or something as minimal as posting a sexual assault prevention message on one's Facebook page or sliding a piece of paper under a commander’s door telling him another airman is, or has been, at risk.





Senior leaders at the Pentagon, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, were the latest group to receive Green Dot sexual assault and anti-violence training, and Air Force Times was invited to the Tuesday session for an exclusive look​. 

“My ultimate goal is to prevent sexual assault and violence of all sorts,” James said. “This is an evidence-based approach that we are now taking on board, and we are going to try it​ and track it over time.”



The initiative, which cost the Air Force $1.6 million, launched ​Oct.​ 1. Green Dot etcetera, the name of the company, has trained ​1,500 volunteer instructors, known as implementers and coordinators of the Green Dot program in the Air Force, said Col. Mark Ramsey, division chief for operations, training, and research and analysis at the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The goal is to train all active-duty, Guard and Reserve airmen by Dec. 31, and to reduce sexual assault by 50 percent over the next five years. The training sessions can range from 90 minutes to four hours.

The Air Force is battling a spike in sexual assault reports, particularly at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. ​

Among the service academies, the Air Force school consistently has had the highest number of reports since 2011. In the 2014-2015 school year, there were 49 reports, including 27 unrestricted and 22 restricted, almost double the 25 reports in school year 2013-2014. A restricted report is a confidential disclosure of the crime to specifically identified individuals, like victims' advocates or health professionals, without triggering an official investigation.

635980625523473025-sexassault-graphic.png
Military sex assault reports, year-by-year.
Photo Credit: Ken Chamberlain/Staff
Being aware of the scope of the problem is, of course, important, but not as important as the training experience that airmen take back with them into the workplace, said Edwards, who led Tuesday’s session.

​Edwards has a team of almost 10 members who travel the country for Green Dot education, which began in 2006.   

“I don’t stand in front of folks ... saying we’re going to end [sexual assault]." Edwards told the room. “But I do stand in front of folks saying we can dramatically and significantly and permanently reduce it.” 

Edwards explained she was a victim of sexual assault at age 19, as was her daughter years ago.​

“When you stand in the room with your airmen, it’s not just about stopping the next assault from happening,” Edwards said. “We step in the room knowing these stories have already impacted so many.”  

Going beyond SAPR training 

Telling male airmen they potentially fall into the “rapist” category, or female airmen that they are potentially the “victim” is much too limiting, Edwards said. Repeating ​the mantra, “To be a good person, you must intervene in an ongoing assault,” isn't likely to stem the tide of sexual assault, either.​  

It’s perhaps why airmen look ​bored or feel indifferent during SAPR training, Edwards said. 

Change really happens with a culture shift.​ 

Look ​at the advent of Facebook​ and social media, Edwards said. "Did culture change when [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg put in his email and password and mad​e an account? No. After 30 people did it? No.” 

But then a handful of people with Facebook accounts turned to hundreds, and thousands, ​and millions, then ​tens of millions. 

“The question remains, when did it happen?" she said. "The first account? The 500th? No idea. But I know how it happened. It happened the same way culture changes every single time — when a bunch of individuals each do some small thing.”​     

In this case, the culture shift must begin with small numbers of people taking a stand against violence, in whatever ways they can. For some people, it may not be easy ​to step up. He’s shy. She’s scared. Another person may not want to get involved in a friend’s problem at work.​ Edwards calls these barriers. 

“Only when you acknowledge your barriers are we going to come up with some solutions,” she said.   

Edwards explained that when someone challenges the inner workings of an individual’s thought-process ​or a person’s belief system, “and you’re not ready for it...you dig your heels in.” 

“We decide when we’re connected. There is not a policy that can force someone to ... make a choice to intervene ... which means it needs to be intrinsically motivated.” 

The Air Force wants its airmen to have conversations about their internal motivation, or their barriers — the first step to reduce assaults in the community. All airmen in some way are bystanders to the issue, Edwards said, but instead of handling tough choices passively, there are options, called “the 3Ds”: direct, delegate or distract​.  

More hands-on people could take the direct approach and intervene when they perceive a problem. If airmen are ​not comfortable with that, they could delegate, enlisting the help of a ​friend or colleague​. Still another possibility is to distract​, refocusing on another subject entirely ​to remove someone from a situation where they could potentially make a mistake or get hurt​. 

The idea that the Air Force’s culture on sexual assault can change is not a matter of if, but how. 

“As it was pointed out, these things are a culture change, culture doesn't change overnight,” James said. “On the other hand, if everybody does something, then that’s where the change begins to occur, and that’s really the approach of Green Dot.”     

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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