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Colleges seek to emulate student-run intervention group

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Lindsey Hadlock
Ben Bacharach

A student-run organization, Cayuga’s Watchers, has been getting national attention for its approach to mitigating the dangers of high-risk drinking, and now schools around the country want to establish similar organizations, according to the president of the nonprofit group.

The group’s influence has been buoyed, in part, by stories in media outlets such as The Washington Post and USA Today, said Ben Bacharach ’18, a student in the ILR School. More than 10 schools, including Ivy League universities, small liberal arts colleges and large state schools, have reached out to Cayuga’s Watchers, he said.

“What’s very key is that we are separate from the university,” he said. “We believe what’s important is the peer-to-peer element.”

Cayuga’s Watchers trains students how to identify instances where excessive drinking is about to occur and how to intervene. Students are paid $10 an hour to attend parties, at the host’s request, Bacharach said. They mingle with guests and watch for signs of potential alcohol poisoning, physical violence and sexual assault.

The organization employs more than 200 “watchers” and staffs four to eight events each weekend for fraternities, sororities and other student groups, he said. The service is free, and watchers are paid through Cayuga’s Watchers, which operates on grants and other donations. The Smithers Institute at the ILR School and Cornell alumni are among its benefactors.

Cayuga’s Watchers began in 2012 after members of the Cornell community learned about similar efforts at other campuses through the National College Health Improvement Project led by Dartmouth College, said Laura Santacrose, health initiatives coordinator at the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, part of Cornell Health.

However, most of those efforts came under the auspices of their respective colleges or charged a fee, she said.

“We take a public health approach,” Santacrose said. “No one thing will solve the problem. We educate students about the signs of alcohol poisoning, the Good Samaritan protocol ... and if we can grow a community of interveners who feel confident to do something in the moment, that all together will really make a difference. It’s really a wonderful addition that students are now part of these strategies. They’re now part of the solution.”

Bacharach and Santacrose said they’re working on including in Cayuga’s Watchers training a new 20-minute video developed by the Skorton Center called “Intervene,” which addresses health topics including intimate partner violence and hazing. The primary audience is undergraduate and graduate students; secondary audiences include parents, alumni, faculty and staff, Santacrose said. Other universities can use it for free.

In addition, a sober house, spearheaded by William Sonnenstuhl, associate professor of organizational behavior, has opened on North Campus for students in recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions, Bacharach said.

Tracy Kinne is a freelancer for the ILR School.

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