Student startup pays students to act as professional bystanders

The priority is 'keeping people safe, not whether rules are being broken'

A student-founded, student-funded startup, Cayuga's Watchers, works to ensure student safety at Cornell University campus parties, Susan Svrluga reports for the Washington Post

Student "watchers" are trained and paid $10 per hour to go to out, remain sober, blend in, and watch out for students drinking alcohol. This could mean calming down an angry partygoer, helping someone who is sick, or limiting someone's alcohol intake. They also train other students in intervention techniques.

The group is just two years old and has already trained 1,500 students.

The National Institutes of Health estimates about 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related incidents every year. A recent Cornell survey found that 40.5% of students engaged in high-risk drinking behavior at least once in the two weeks prior.

The nonprofit is funded through donations and grants, which allows them to omit any disciplinary roles. The founders studied similar groups at Haverford College and Dartmouth College.

Challenging the binge drinking culture by encouraging students to drink

"It's important for our organization to be from students for students," said Shane Moore, current president of Cayuga's Watchers. "We wanted the priority to be keeping people safe, not whether rules are being broken."

To prepare for employee training, the group spoke with university officials.

"They're really critical partners for us," says Laura Santacrose, Cornell's health initiatives coordinator. "They're the ones that are there in the moment and have the capacity to change the environment, chance the culture."

Watchers choose which parties they want to work and can do so with friends. Each team looks for four types of problems:

1. Students looking to get drunk. Watchers combat this by distracting students from their drinks or offering to get someone a drink and filling it with mixer—but rubbing alcohol on the rim to make it smell real. 

2. Rowdy students. Watchers often ask a student's friend to calm him or her down—but also get on their level by acting just as crazy, befriending the student, and then redirecting his or her attention to the dancefloor or a game.

3. Creepy students. For this, watchers ask the target student's friends if everything is okay, interrupt the conversation, or distract the student giving off bad vibes.

4. Sick students. Using their training, watchers determine whether the ill student needs to go to the hospital or just to be monitored (Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 10/27).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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