Watching Out for Others

Other colleges looking to Cornell group that intervenes at parties
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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 non-profit 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.  

More than 10 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 on 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.

There, they mingle and watch for signs of alcohol poisoning, and other harms such as 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 watcher pay is made 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 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,” Santacrose said.

Bacharach and Santacrose said they’re working on including in Cayuga’s Watchers training a new 20-minute video developed by the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives called “Intervene.”

The project was inspired by an American University video. Cornell’s video addresses a variety of health topics, including intimate partner violence and hazing. The primary audience is undergraduate and graduate students with secondary audiences including parents, alumni, faculty and staff, Santacrose said. It was designed so other universities can use it for free.

In addition, a sober house, spearheaded by ILR Associate Professor William Sonnenstuhl, has opened on North Campus for students in recovery from alcohol and other drug addictions, Bacharach said.

Many of these initiatives involve ILR students, faculty and alumni, Bacharach noted. “A significant part of the executive board has historically been ILR students,” he said of Cayuga’s Watchers.

Why? “I think ILR really encourages leadership,” Bacharach said.