Nov. 19, 2013

Cayuga's Watchers aim for friendly intervention

Arriving on campus her freshman year, Maria (not her real name) was struck by the number of parties that included alcohol. Now a sophomore, Maria is a charter member of the student-run organization Cayuga’s Watchers, which sends peer intervention teams to parties.

“I saw new friends getting sick, getting in trouble, and I had to find some way to help,” says Maria.

What she improvised became a model for Cayuga’s Watchers’ risk-reduction techniques: “Immerse yourself in the party scene,” she figured. “Dance and sing with your friends and try to make new ones. Watch for people on the verge of hurting themselves or others. And tactfully help them find a better way to have fun.”

Then Maria came upon a recruiting flyer for the startup Cayuga’s Watchers, one of the nation’s first collegiate peer intervention teams. She signed up in a heartbeat.

“Unofficially our motto is ‘Keep the party going ... safely,’ but our mission statement is a little more straight-laced,” explains Eric Silverberg ’14, president of Cayuga’s Watchers, an independent, nonprofit service launched last month. “We intend to reduce the harms associated with high-risk drinking by engaging in nonconfrontational but effective bystander intervention techniques.”

Party organizers voluntarily invite Cayuga’s Watchers to send teams of three or four members to mingle and intervene, if necessary. Team members, who receive four hours of training, identify themselves only to party hosts and security personnel, and there’s no drinking on duty. Team members are paid $10 an hour to accept assignments from Watchers.

Intervention tactics, intended to reduce the potential for alcohol poisoning, sexual violence and property damage, might involve offering safe distractions to help an already intoxicated student avoid further alcohol consumption, or engineering an escape from an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation. Training helps Watchers protect their personal safety at all times.

An overindulging partygoer might not realize what’s happening, Silverberg says, but they’re eventually grateful. “If relief doesn’t come at the exact moment, it will the next morning when you have two midterms – and you’re not totally hung over.”

Led by a three-student board of directors, Watchers “basically is an experiment-in-progress,” says Silverberg. “We’re surprised how well our service is received, and we’re thrilled how many students want to get involved (more than 120 Watchers so far, with about three-quarters from Greek organizations), but now the real work begins.” He says fraternities, sororities and off-campus party-givers are hiring the Watchers.

Writing in The Cornell Daily Sun, student-elected trustee Ross Gitlin said: “The Watchers initiative is important because it exemplifies students’ ability to start a project that will make the campus a safer place.”

Adds Maria: “Now I get paid to go to parties. I help people have fun safely and make my parents proud in the process.”