In use across the United States, Step UP! seeks to train students in bystander intervention in order to help prevent problem situations when they observe any.
Over 40 of the 99-member Acadia football team took empowerment training. Many, like Gabriel Bagnell who plays defense, are well aware their behaviour is viewed under a magnifying glass.
“One guy does something wrong,” he says, “and everyone assumes the worst. We wanted to protect the team.”
Robert Ffrench, director of the Valley African Nova Scotia Development Agency (VANSDA), says the Step UP! program has, “increased awareness hugely and taken me on a journey. By any measure it was a success.”
Ffrench, who is old enough to parent university students, was proud of the number of players who stuck it out over 20 weeks and the overall personal growth that resulted.
“There were some very contentious modules,” he noted, that blamed males for some of the worst behaviour. As a result player engagement varied.
Ffrench, who is a former Acadia football player himself, spoke about how visible young male athletes are on campus.
Despite that spotlight, he said, the program results in them “really being change agents. They took it to heart. Now they can be the role models they need to be. They have license to intervene.”
Ffrench applauded a seven-minute video prepared by Bagnell, which asked male and female students to respond to questions about consent and virginity.
According to Ffrench, the video encapsulates the main Step UP! message, which is “do not be a bystander.” He sees the video and the program changing the culture at Acadia.
The video, like the 1990’s book Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus, delineates how the two genders respond to the same question like ‘do you feel safe alone at night.’
Bagnell enjoyed the filming, the unscripted reactions and the “laughter that was organic. The responses were beautiful.” He hopes that in this region perspectives are slowly changing regarding bystander intervention.
A fourth year sociology student from Toronto, Sehkahnee Reynolds has four sisters. They were all the motivation he needed to take the Step Up! course.
“I’m probably overprotective,” he says, “but that’s OK. It’s cool.”
The 220-pound lineback also took on a leadership role doing scheduling and setting up events.
“It was a lot of work,” he acknowledged. But Reynolds is a believer in making communities better and raising awareness.
“Men in society normally do not know much about harassment,” Reynolds said, “After the course they understand more, they see the standards around town. We still have to be accountable.”
Reynolds understands that student athletes are not invisible “as long as we have team jerseys on our back.”
Reynolds notes, that if a fellow athlete “acts like an idiot at a party,” those who are trained “will talk to them, simple things like that. We’ll work together to keep the program going.”
He and a friend got rebuffed one night at a bar when offering to see some inebriated young women home safely. He sees that the positive intervention work will take more practice.
Respect others is one of the main messages Reynolds took from Step UP! His parents and his martial arts training, he adds, also taught him that attitude. Other influences included community and church mentors, and his older siblings.
Reynolds suggests, “A lot of eyes looking out,” helps modify behaviour.
While he hasn’t been involved himself, Acadia’s football coach Jeff Cummins acknowledges that athletes don’t have the best reputation when it comes to sexual behavior, so he’s hoping that Step Up! will continue.
“I hope and pray that young men in general get a lot out of the program,” he said.
Work to rule in local high schools meant that the Acadia football players were not able to spread the message of bystander intervention at the secondary level or do any mentoring.
“We couldn’t go into the schools,” Ffrench stated. “We literally had the rug pulled out from under us. We were looking forward to taking it and running.”
Because he learned to think differently, Bagnell would still like to teach younger male athletes the positive notions he gained from Step UP!
The senior business student says, “I’d love to do more with the high schools.”
Ffrench is hopeful that external connections can be made with high school students in the fall, meanwhile Step UP! is making the Acadia campus a safer place.