10 Questions With Bystander Intervention Coordinator Katie Tenny
Katie Tenny, a 2008 Penn State graduate, was appointed the Bystander Intervention Coordinator last month after Penn State searched the country for a leader for the program. It turns out, however, the ideal person was already on campus, serving the role at an interim capacity.
The goal of the bystander intervention program is to provide students, faculty, and staff with the training and tools they need to help stop sexual and relationship violence as part of Penn State’s efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment. We sat down with Tenny to talk about how she got involved with the initiative, what she hopes to accomplish, and how Penn Staters can make the community safer and healthier.
Onward State: How did you make your way to Penn State?
Katie Tenny: I came to Penn State in 2008 for my master’s degree in counseling and international education. I planned to go back home to Seattle after graduating, but have stayed ever since — this place has a way of doing that! I’ve worked in the Health Promotion and Wellness office in the Student Health Center, in Counseling and Psychological Services, and now in the new Center for Character, Conscience, and Public Purpose.
OS: What do you do at Penn State, or in general, in addition to the bystander intervention program? How did you get involved with bystander intervention?
KT: I was recently hired to focus on Penn State’s bystander intervention efforts full time. Prior to this I was a licensed counselor in CAPS, with a small portion of my work week devoted to bystander intervention. I originally became interested in the topic through working with students and hearing a lot of stories about fun nights going downhill, whether that meant someone getting a citation for drinking or people getting hurt. The majority of the time peers or friends were around to prevent it, but didn’t. It’s a pretty common experience for people to be concerned about a situation and want to help, but don’t because a variety of barriers that might get in the way — whether it’s that they don’t know what to do, don’t want to make a situation worse, not feel like it’s their business, etc. I was interested to learn more about this and how to overcome those barriers.
OS: You were previously the chair of the initiative — how did you make the jump to being named the official head, and what responsibilities does this entail?
KT: Just over two years ago the Center for Women Students, University Health Services, and Counseling and Psychological Services got together to discuss how we all were talking about how friends could watch out for each other and have been incorporating this message into programming for a long time. A task force was formed out of these conversations to look at how to empower people with the skills to intervene, and also to create a consistent framework with how to talk about watching out for each other. It currently has around 50 different groups represented including staff, faculty, and students. I sparked the initial meeting, and facilitated the efforts moving forward. Once a position was created, it seemed like a natural fit to put my name in to keep leading the effort. While it’s been hard work to develop a new program, it has been inspiring and encouraging because so many groups and individuals see the need for this, and are getting involved. My sense is that it has been a way for people to learn concrete ways to make campus safer, which is giving people hope that things can be different.
OS: You worked with bystander intervention before the program partnered up with Penn State as part of the task force recommendations. Did you have any influence on making bystander intervention one of the recommendations? Had you previously been working with the administration to get the program to be university-wide/university-funded?
KT: The Bystander Intervention Task Force was a grassroots effort of many different groups around campus coming together. Soon after we began meeting, VP of Student Affairs, Damon Sims, offered his support of the effort to continue the process. A proposal for a comprehensive bystander intervention program was created about the same time that President Barron created the Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Task Force. There were a variety of people on the SASH Task Force that were already a part of the conversation about bystander intervention. It is a key piece sexual violence prevention, so it made sense that it would be incorporated into the SASH recommendations. The BI Task Force was very excited that our diligent work creating the proposal was included as a recommendation.
OS: How do you hope to use the bystander intervention training to change the conversation on campus regarding sexual misconduct?
KT: We are hoping for it to impact campus in a variety of ways. First and foremost, we want students, faculty, and staff to have the skills to notice a potentially concerning situation, and then to be able to intervene safely and effectively in the moment. It is really important that people feel like they can step in to disrupt the situation in ways that feel realistic, not awkward, and that wouldn’t make a big scene but that still diffuse the situation. Second, the majority of the time people won’t see concerning situations, so we also teach people how to create the norms within their classes, orgs, and friend groups that violence isn’t okay, and that we all play a role in watching out for each other. This makes it less likely for violence to happen in the first place.
OS: You guys held a workshop recently and are opening the program up to faculty, staff, and student leaders on campus before it officially kicks off in January. What was the intent behind engaging student leaders in early sessions, and what kind of feedback have you received from the session?
KT: The hope behind inviting people to attend a workshop before the program officially launches is to tell people about what’s coming, and getting the word out so that once the launch happens there is already momentum and excitement generated. The majority of the feedback we’ve been getting has been positive. The vast majority of us want to help when we see something concerning, and students have shared that they feel empowered to actually help their friends and peers. What makes me most hopeful are the stories that students have come back and shared after coming to a program that they saw something concerning and are excited to tell me that they actually helped someone — whether they knew the person or not.
OS: Have you seen a large interest in students, staff, and/or the community in getting involved in the program, either to go through the training or work with implementation of the initiative?
KT: Yes, as I mentioned above there are many different groups that have been represented on the Bystander Intervention Task Force. We have different implementation teams that have students, faculty, and staff on them. As more people attend programs and hear about it, they are reaching out and wanting to know how they can get involved.
OS: What are some things individuals can do if they come across a high-risk situation before going through the program or in general?
KT: If someone ever sees something concerning they have options to help. One way to remember options is by thinking of the 3Ds: Direct, Distract, and Delegate. Direct doesn’t mean being confrontational, it just means that you get involved and acknowledge concern and check in e.g. “Hey, is everything okay?” Distract is when you do something to diffuse the situation or separate two people, but for whatever reason you don’t want to acknowledge you’re concerned. At a party, that could look like saying to a person in harm’s way, “Hey your friends have been looking for you. Let me take you to them,” or to a person that may be trying to take advantage of someone, “This party isn’t great, let’s get out of here and go get food.” Delegate is pulling someone else in that is in better position to help — whether that is a closer friend, an RA, or a party host. We always tell people that their safety is just as important as the person in harms way. If they ever feel unsafe, the option is to delegate.
OS: What do you hope, ultimately, to see accomplished by the bystander intervention program?
KT: I want less people to get hurt. Sexual and relationship violence are very prevalent, with an estimated 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men having an attempted or completed sexual assault committed against them. About 1 in 3 romantic relationships have some form of abuse present. With numbers like this, the likelihood is that most people know someone who has been impacted by these types of violence. My hope is that the majority of people on campus recognize that they have a role to play in keeping people safe, and to do so.
OS: As is Onward State tradition, if you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be and why?
KT: Hmmm, interesting question. I think I may choose a Brontosaurus because I would get to have a great view of nature at all times, and because I would only eat plants and wouldn’t have to be put in a position of eating other dinosaurs.