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Flagstaff Bars Use 'Bystander Intervention' Training to Address Sexual Assault

Justin Regan

Bartenders watch us, they can’t help it, it’s part of their job. When they see our drinks getting low, they pour us fresh ones. When they catch us looking at the menu, they know we’re ready to order food. And when they see someone else watching us making us uncomfortable, they’re ready to intervene. 

At least the bartenders in Flagstaff are. For the last couple of years, the city has been a national test site for a program to train bar staff how to spot potential predators. As Arizona Public Radio’s Justin Regan reports, their work is part of a nation-wide movement to prevent sexual assault through bystander intervention.  

Angelina Vargas and her two best friends are doing what they often do on a Saturday night, bar-hopping in downtown Flagstaff.

Let’s just go and have some drinks, be in the environment. Have some music blasting in my ears so I can dance and have fun,” said Vargas.

They love partying together, but they never lose sight of each other. Felice Jiron and Alena Chavez say it’s just too dangerous to go out, and stay out, alone.

There’s no ‘I will catch up with you later’. It will be ‘No, you came with me, you’ll leave with me’ it’s simple as that. And you need to make sure girls that your friends are the ones that you can trust,” said Chavez.

“We will look out for people who need someone to look out for them. We’ve been in those situations and it’s important to look out for your fellow human beings,” said Jiron.

That concept of bystander intervention is the foundation of the Arizona Safer Bars Alliance or ASBA. It’s the state’s response to a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for rape awareness and community action.

ASBA trains bar staff to look for potential predators; read body language, pick up on social cues, trust their gut instinct and then do something.

Sort of stinks that we need it in the first place, but if we can do our part and do it wisely and prevent sexual assault it’s awesome,” said Al Henes, the owner of the Flagstaff Brewing Company.

FBC is one of the first ASBA trained bars. 

So it’s nothing where we run in back and put on a cape and our tights and go and play the hero. It’s every day all day keeping our eyes open and being aware of our surroundings for our patrons,” said Henes

Some estimates show alcohol is a factor in a least half of all reported sexual assaults. In college towns, like Flagstaff, that number can be even higher. ASBA trained staff learn how to spot people who are getting or giving unwanted attention. They look for customers who seem uncomfortable in their surroundings. And for those trying to buy drinks for someone who doesn’t want or need any more.

Especially if the girl already has had too much to drink, and she’s trying to turn him down. Why are you trying to get this woman to that point,” said Brittany Carrick a bartender at Collin’s Irish Pub.

Carrick says bar staff communicate with each other when they see a red flag situation.

“I’ve had a couple of situations where guys have just been pushing drinks down a woman’s throat. And I’ve cut both parties off and asked that a bouncer just speak to both parties to see what’s going on,” said Carrick.

She says the most important part of the training was the empowerment she felt to step up and get involved.

“It really opened my eyes to act on, instead of making it somebody else’s problem,” said Carrick.

Feedback from the Flagstaff pilot program will be studied by the University of Arizona in Tucson. Researchers plan to come up with an evidence based model, which can be used in bars across the nation.   

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