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A few weeks ago, Missoula police who’d been alerted to a potential drunken motorcyclist got an assist. When they found their man, he was on foot – because a bystander took his keys.

Groups that combat sexual assault would like to see people take a similar approach in those situations. To, say, put a hand over the woman’s drink before a buddy drops a pill in it. Or step in before he buys the tipsy woman another drink or three. To think about the repercussions for the woman if nobody helps her.

Folks will feel more comfortable doing all of those things if some new efforts in Missoula County are successful.

The idea is to wield bystander intervention – long promoted as a tactic to fight drunken driving and, more recently, domestic violence – as a weapon against sexual assault, too.

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A sexual assault prevention program that largely relies on bystander intervention was a last-minute addition to Missoula’s city budget. It’s set to launch next month or in September, as close to the start of the University of Montana’s fall semester as possible.

Peer educators at the University of Montana’s Curry Health Center began a similar effort this past spring.

“All kinds of times we find ourselves maybe being in a situation where people are not making good choices themselves, or in potentially dangerous situations where those of us who are there can step in and make a difference,” said Linda Green, Curry’s director of health enhancement.

“Sometimes it just means being a friend of even a stranger,” Green said. “You can change the outcome.”

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The need to change outcomes was underscored by the presence in Missoula last week of federal investigators looking into how local law enforcement handle reports of rape and sexual assault.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating how such reports have been handled over the last few years by the Missoula Police Department and County Attorney’s Office, and UM’s public safety office. The U.S. Department of Education also is investigating allegations of harassment involving the Grizzlies football team.

The investigations were spurred in part by reports last December that UM students were gang-raped, possibly after being drugged, by several male students. A review commissioned by UM turned up other alleged assaults involving students.

The DOJ investigation will examine all reported assaults, not just those involving students. Police Chief Mark Muir said last week the department compiled 518 reports, everything from misdemeanor sexual assault to rape, over four years for federal investigators.

The investigations by both UM and the feds spurred a heightened awareness of sexual assault, and increased emphasis on prevention efforts.

“We’re cooperating on a relentless campaign to stop sexual assault,” Mayor John Engen said this spring in announcing a joint effort with law enforcement and the university to urge sexual assault victims to always call 9-1-1.

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Ideally, though, that call won’t have to be made – because a potential assailant will have turned away from the crime, possibly with the help of a bystander.

Ron Liszak at WORD (Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development) helps people become that bystander. A common concern, he said, is that a potential perpetrator – the drunk, the abuser, the would-be rapist – is bigger and stronger than the bystander, and angrier, too.

“You don’t have to put yourself in danger,” he said. Being an “empowered bystander” can range from taking your concerns to a teacher, or dialing 9-1-1, he said. “Everyone’s got to choose for themselves what is best for their level of involvement,” he said.

Liszak’s Mentors in Violence Prevention program runs in high schools around the state. He said he’s offered the curriculum to the university, “but we haven’t gotten much response.”

UM brought the national program Men Can Stop Rape to campus for a two-day seminar during spring semester. Students also started a campus Men of Strength group that aims sexual assault prevention messages at men.

All the programs stress men’s responsibility for their own behavior, and also urge bystanders to get involved.

“Historically, sexual assault prevention has been very much about let’s tell victims how not to get raped,” said Kelly McGuire of the Missoula Crime Victim Advocate’s Office. “We really want to turn that on its head. … It’s like blaming people who get hit by a drunk driver for choosing to drive late at night.”

She cited material from the national group Start By Believing.

“My daughter died in a car crash,” it reads. The response: “Well, that’s what she gets for not taking the bus.”

Anti-drunk driving campaigns went with bystander intervention decades ago, with their “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” message.

Lonie Hutchison, the Missoula City-County DUI Task Force coordinator, still stresses it in the alcohol server training classes she teaches.

The motorcyclist’s drunken driving arrest is a perfect example, she said.

“If you can intervene without putting yourself in harm’s way, it’s great,” she said. “When that fellow reached in and took the keys, he could’ve gotten clobbered. But, omigosh, he probably stopped a horrible crash or saved someone from dying.”

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Another more familiar term for bystander intervention – peer pressure.

Shantelle Gaynor is a grants administrator for Missoula County, who obtains funding for such programs. When her job involved talking to freshmen on campus, she’d ask, “Who here has a friend you would not let your sister date?”

“They’d all raise their hands. I’d ask, ‘Then why is it OK for him to date anybody else?’ If you know you have a friend who’s kind of sketchy, call him on it.”

As concepts go, it couldn’t be simpler.

“The only option that doesn’t work as an empowered bystander,” Liczak said, “is to do nothing.”

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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