RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The White House is taking on the problem of rape on campus. This week, it released a set of recommendations aimed at reducing rape and sexual assault at colleges. One program involves bystander intervention. The idea: students can do a lot to prevent sexual violence before it happens by simply stepping in.

Nancy Cohen has that story.

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NANCY COHEN, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon at Boston's Northeastern University, students are holding a Prevention Festival. They're handing out chocolate ice cream, candy bars, and pamphlets with statistics on sexual assault.

BRANDON RIGBY: I would have thought it was much lower, but that's pretty high.

COHEN: Twenty-two-year-old Brandon Rigby is reading a pamphlet that says 1 in 5 female students will be victims of sexual assault on college campuses. According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost half of the women and more than a third of the men who've experienced sexual violence were first sexually assaulted when they were of college age.

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COHEN: Among those pledging their support today is group of men from the fraternity Phi Delta Theta. Daniel Asulin, a junior, says it's possible to intervene calmly.

DANIEL ASULIN: If something actually doesn't seem right or, you know, a guy is being a little too aggressive or something, just like, lean in and say hey - like, if you're buddies, you know, just be like: Hey, man, like why don't you just ease up a bit? Like, she doesn't seem to be, you know, going with it.

COHEN: Challenging behaviors that could lead to sexual violence is at the heart of bystander intervention training. It's designed to change social norms and encourage people to find ways to intervene. Back in the 1970s and '80s, efforts to prevent sexual assault focused mostly on women. Young women were advised to change their behavior: not to drink too much, and to leave parties with someone they knew. But that didn't change men's behaviors.

Now, many colleges are training students to be active bystanders - including MIT, Michigan State, University of Montana and here, at Northeastern.

BETSY GARDNER: Third page for you all...

COHEN: Trainer Betsy Gardner asks students what they would do in a variety of situations, such as if someone they know is being abusive or is being abused. Tyler Dohrn, a 22-year-old psychology major from Newbury College, says by intervening, he might help both the potential victim and perpetrator.

TYLER DOHRN: By saying, hey - you know - this isn't something that's OK. What are you doing to your partner? And what are you doing to yourself, in a way, by doing this?

COHEN: Intervening doesn't have to be confrontational. Bystanders can turn on lights or shut off music at a party to interrupt unwanted sexual attention. They can distract or embarrass someone.

Research at the University of New Hampshire has found that after students are trained in the bystander approach and exposed to a social marketing campaign, students say they're using these skills, and they see intervening as their responsibility. But more research is needed to see if bystander intervention prevents sexual assault.

Sarah Banis, a 20-year-old from Northeastern, describes how she intervened at a New Year's party. A guy was following and touching a friend of hers who had told him to leave her alone.

SARAH BANIS: I just turned around, and I said: She already said no once, so why don't you just stop? Like, she's clearly not into it. And that's, I think, when he - that is exactly when, actually, he did stop and left her alone. It was like, all we have to do is like, speak up.

COHEN: Banis says there are many ways to intervene without putting oneself at risk. But more people need to be trained.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen.

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