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How Bars Can Become Safer Spaces

Many folks may not be thinking about gathering in bars and clubs right now, but when they do, bystander trainings for staff may help make bars safer places.

(Photo by Jia Jia Shum on Unsplash)

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Artie Scholes owns a pinball bar in Kansas City, Kansas, called the 403 Club. In nearly 30 years of working in bars, he has heard plenty of stories from female friends about harassment or assault happening at bars.

“Every now and then you might catch a guy being too flirtatious,” he says of his experience at his own bar. “After a girl shuts him down and he’s too silly to get the message, you know, so you just got to say, ‘Hey bud, leave her alone.’”

So when one of his regulars came in with stickers for his bathroom window proclaiming support for sexual assault survivors, he asked if there was anything else he could do to help.

The regular, who worked a Kansas City, Missouri non-profit called MOCSA, or Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, told him about a free class for people in the hospitality industry who wanted to learn how to prevent sexual assault. Scholes reached out to some neighboring bars, and about 15 bar staff in the neighborhood participated in the two- hour program.

In the class, they went over all the warning signs and triggers that bar staff can see and ways to intervene so that customers and staff are safe.

“We all kind of shared our own experiences, with 15 people, there was a lot of bar years in the building,” he says. “We had good group discussions on how to keep our neighborhood safe.”

“There’s things that you know, but it was neat to learn a little extra of signals that you might not have caught previously,” he says of the training.

The class was part of MOCSA’s SAFE (Sexual-Assault-Free Environment) Training, which the organization provides free to bars in the Kansas City area.

The creator of the program, Haleigh Harrold, said that the idea emerged in 2016. MOCSA decided to develop a campaign focused on bar and restaurant workers, borrowing ideas from bystander intervention training that they were already doing with middle and school students, as well as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), an urbanist strategy to reduce crime through use of the built environment. The group consulted with people working at bars and restaurants to adjust to make a bystander training appropriate for the service industry.

The success of MOCSA’s SAFE training led Harrold to venture out on her own and create a non-profit to do sexual assault preventive trainings at bars nation-wide. With funding from two bar owners who had both received MOCSA’s SAFE training, Harrold was able to start up the SAFE Bar Network in May of 2020. While the network has not been able to train any bars due to Covid-19, they plan to train bars in 21 cities by Fall 2021. Harrold no longer lives in Kansas City and is now living in Oregon, where she moved to be closer to family and trains with the Safe Bar Network remotely.

While participating bars don’t collect metrics on sexual harassment, Harrold says she’s encouraged by conversations with bartending staff in recent trainings who seem to be absorbing the training.

She notes a group of bar owners in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bloomington, Indiana and Columbia, Missouri, that she trained while at MOCSA in 2018 and 2019. In recent refresher trainings this January, she noticed bar staff had integrated strategies from the training.

As an example, she says one of the questions she asks staff is how they handle customers who have been “over-served,” or visibly intoxicated. In earlier trainings, staff of the bars in all three cities had responses that were well-meaning but “all over the place,” including talking to the person, buying them food, offering them a soda.

But in a recent training in January, she says the responses from bartending staff in all three cities are more consistent: get them water, give them food, get their friends, get them home safely.

“That wasn’t a policy that they had posted in the sign or put in the handbook, that was a shift in their culture,” she says. Harrold says she was also surprised that the culture shifts are seemingly ingrained in bars who receive training, despite the relatively high employee turnover at most bars.

Bar owners in the Kansas City metropolitan area approach MOCSA about training for similar reasons. Zack Williams, who works at the Julep Cocktail Club in Kansas City, Missouri, says the bar is in an entertainment district where he’s seen predatory behavior.

“The vibe of our area lends itself to some nefarious characters coming out to take advantage of people who’ve had too much to drink,” he says.

A patron recommended the MOCSA training to him, and he signed the bar up for a class.

He says that after the training, his staff is more alert and better at addressing problems when something doesn’t look right.

“They’re a lot better at grabbing me or one of the managers when they do have a concern,” he says.

He also says that the trainings have made people more cognizant without being overbearing.

“We’re not like voyeurs listening to everyone’s conversation, we’re just trying to be more aware,” he says.

Melissa Botts works as a manager at District Pour House in Kansas City, Missouri, who arranged for a SAFE training at the bar. Botts, who recently completed her masters in psychology and is planning on transitioning to a new career, says the service industry is not as trauma-informed or mental-health informed as it could be.

And bystander intervention training is important, she says, because people often think what’s happening at a bar is not their problem.

“There’s a lot of victim blaming,” she says of assaults at bars, “It’s important to realize that you have the ability to do something if you see something awkward.”

MOCSA’s SAFE training and the SAFE Bar Network are not the only training programs of their kind. In Arizona, the Safe Bar Alliance is a collaboration between Arizona Department of Health and The University of Arizona which teaches a 5 hour course with an annual refresher training. The course they developed is also used on Long Island, New York. A program in D.C. has had its curriculum taught in 14 cities, including a class by the non-profit WOAR in Philadelphia which is given in exchange for a certification.

In a few cities, trainings have even become mandatory. In Lawrence, Kansas, bar staff must receive training on sexual assault intervention in order to serve alcohol by law. NYC proposed a similar law, but it did not make it to vote.

There are conflicting views on whether a version of SAFE Bar training should be mandatory. Zack Williams, of Julep Cocktail Club, noted that many of the bars that have requested the training in Kansas City, Missouri are already working to cultivate a safe atmosphere.

“The funny thing is it feels like we’re the ones the that need it the least, we already police our space pretty well and make sure our customers are safe,” he says.

He thinks that mandating trainings could be a good idea, but that bar owners should be open to doing it voluntarily.

“I hope a lot more bar and tavern owners are putting that onus on themselves anyway,” he says.

Harrold says it’s up to individual cities and states to determine whether they mandate training, but she feels that voluntary training may end up being more successful.

She says she’s heard from a few cities that mandating the training that bar managers are less engaged.

“It changes the way that people show up in the room,” she says. MOCSA’s SAFE Bar training is geared toward bars who heard of the training through word of mouth, something she said leads to better experiences.

“The impact when managers are interested in the training is a lot greater than when they aren’t sure about it,” she says.

Having buy-in from bar owners is integrated into MOCSA’s SAFE Bar training as well as the SAFE Bar Network, she says. Over the years of directing the MOCSA training, Harrold integrated an element where bar owners introduce the training and explain to staff why they personally find it valuable, linking it back to the values of the establishment.

How integrated the training is into the day to day work also depends on individual bars. In one bar, Harrold says, bar managers give an informal refresher course on the SAFE training along with a pep talk on Saturdays.

Of course, most bars are not seeing the same amount of customers they did before the COVID-19. Bars and restaurants in Kansas City, Missouri can serve customers with restrictions. Julep Cocktail Club is currently only offering outdoor seating a few days a week.

But all of the bars that spoke with Next City said they’d be open to a refresher SAFE training when business picks up again.

“I would recommend it to anybody that allows gathering of people particularly when there’s alcohol around,” says Zack Williams, of Julep Cocktail Club. “it’s just another tool in an ever-growing toolbox. There’s no reason not to do it.”

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: kansas city

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