The Project Superhero is an initiative funded by UT System to prevent high-risk behavior in college students at the UTRGV campus. The Texas Health Journal interviewed Associate Dean of Students Douglas R. Stoves, Ed.D. about the employment of bystander intervention and its benefits for student health.
By Adrianne Grubic
Population Health Scholar
University of Texas System
Ph.D. Student, School of Journalism
UT Austin Moody College of Communication The University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Douglas Stoves, Ed.D. is Associate Dean for Students Rights and Responsibilities at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In that position, he oversees The Superhero Project, an active bystander project. The program has garnered national attention and has won the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association’s Best Practices/Institutional Impact Award and an award from ACPA, College Students Educators International. Student peer leaders are trained in leading discussions about the program and also how and when to intervene including if someone may be suffering from mental health issues or alerting authorities to the fact someone is smoking on a tobacco-free campus.
Texas Health Journal: Can you give me an overview of The Superhero Project active bystander program?
Dr. Douglas Stoves: The whole idea of the Superhero program is that basically anybody can be a superhero. Superheroes don’t let the train go off the cliff. They do something. That’s the spirit with which we wanted to approach students. That was where we were starting.
We began with sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary concerns, but then broadened it to include mental health concerns, alcohol and drugs, plagiarism and cheating, and smoking. If there's an opportunity for somebody else to intervene, we can adjust the program to the issue.
It is adapted from The University of Arizona’s Step Up! Bystander intervention program, and has three key concepts. Recognize that there's an issue or a problem, choose the way you want to deal with it (either directly or indirectly), and then act.
Do you believe this program is or will be instrumental in diminishing the number of sexual assaults and/or raising awareness of sexual misconduct on the Rio Grande Valley campus?
We hope so. One of the interesting aspects of bystander intervention programs is that, if they are successful in encouraging students to intervene, there may not be evidence of it. If we are doing our job well with the Superhero Project, students are preventing something bad from occurring. Of course this is also part of a larger effort to encourage students to report sexual misconduct, which is one of the most under-reported issue that students deal with. So it’s complicated. We’d like to see more reporting, and above all we want to prevent misconduct from occurring in the first place. The goal is a safer campus.
You mentioned that smoking is part of the Superhero Project. Is there anything you're doing to address the rise in vaping?
UTRGV is a tobacco free campus. The prohibition includes not just traditional cigarettes, but chewing tobacco, hookah, and electronic cigarettes. We are encouraging students to intervene when they see other students violating the policy, but we are very thoughtful about what should look like. Smoking is a very personal issue, and if you’re not careful when intervening it can become confrontational and combative pretty quickly.
We don’t want our students engaged in that kind of conflict, so we developed an approach called the “DNA method,” which is based on UT Austin’s ABC program. “D” is do not assume that people know that they're violating a policy. Begin from the assumption that you’re informing them of the existence of the policy. “N” is never be disrespectful, and “A” is always leave on a positive note. We also want to respect that students may not want to confront other students directly, and so we make sure they know that there’s a reporting app they can use to let campus police know that someone is violating the policy. That lets us identify smoking hotspots.
This is all easier with traditional cigarettes than e-cigarettes. With a cigarette people are generally sitting out there smoking the whole cigarette. It is pretty visible. With vaping it can be a little more transitory, one and done. But certainly we know that there’s a need to address that as well as chewing tobacco.
The Superhero Project also encourages students to intervene when they observe that one of their fellow students seems to be experiencing mental health issues. What are some of the biggest problems in the realm of mental health that students are facing? And do you believe that if they are engaged by a peer they are more likely to seek professional treatment?
Unfortunately, suicidal ideation is fairly common. And when you pair that with a reluctance to seek out mental health treatment, which a lot of students have, it’s a problem we hope to be able to address. Part of the goal is for our Superheroes to help normalize both mental health challenges and help-seeking as much as possible, to communicate the message that mental health problems are common, that it’s okay to see a counselor, and that people can and do recover. That is how we are training our Superheroes to reduce the stigma. When you’re talking about individual encounters, when somebody says something or posts something on social media, I do think it can help when someone else engages. Aside from the facts or contacts they can provide, just finding out that somebody else cares, and cares about whether you live or die, can be really important. So I do think that people saying something, playing an active part in that process, can increase the likelihood of professional treatment.