Reach Out and Respond Program Trains 6,700 Students in Alcohol Intervention Tactics

“Wildcats watch out for each other.”

With 6,700 students trained in the Wildcat Reach Out and Respond (ROAR) alcohol education and bystander intervention program, the program’s motto is truer than ever. But perhaps more importantly, living up to that motto is saving lives.

Since it began in spring of 2013, Wildcat ROAR has sparked a movement to end alcohol overdose deaths by teaching students and other campus community members how to recognize and handle alcohol emergencies and summon professional help. The idea is to counter “the bystander effect,” a psychological phenomenon in which the more people are present during a crisis, the less likely it is anyone will actually help because everyone assumes someone else will step forward.

ROAR training gives participants the skills to recognize and actively (and safely) intervene when they see signs of an alcohol overdose occurring and get the person medical attention. The small-group trainings are student-led by peer educators from the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC), which helps students absorb the messages and discuss their experiences without fear of reprisal.

“People see the peer educators as role models, but we try to inform them that we’re college students, too, just like you, so we understand,” said CADEC Peer Educator Janell Harris, a junior social work major. “We’ve been through the freshman experience. We know you’re going to drink. We know you’re going to have parties and have fun, but just do it responsibly. Your life matters. Don’t let a night out be a nightmare.”

Harris appreciates that though CADEC provides a number of support programs for students seeking recovery, the Wildcat ROAR program has a realistic approach to alcohol that is based around education, not abstinence.

“Some students, that’s their way of making friends, so there’s nothing wrong with going out to party and making friends like that, it’s just about how to do it responsibly,” said Harris. “They have what they like to do, but you don’t want your hobby to cost you your life.”

Based on the national, evidence-based Red Watch Band program, ROAR’s mission is straightforward: provide campus community members with knowledge, awareness, and skills to prevent student toxic drinking deaths and to promote a student culture of kindness, responsibility, compassion, and respect.

Student leaders are the true core of ROAR—educating thousands of their peers over the last four years.

A row of arms wearing red watches

Wildcat ROAR is part of the national Red Watch Band program, which provides campus community members with knowledge and skills to prevent toxic drinking deaths and promote a culture of kindness, responsibility, compassion, and respect. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

“It’s especially heartwarming because our students have done the work,” said Trisha Seastrom, CADEC program director. “We’re here as staff to guide and mentor, but to have them have this heart and willingness to step up and look out for each other, protect each other—they are saving lives.”

CADEC brought the national bystander intervention program to Chico State following the Community Call to Action, a joint statement in 2013 from the University and community pledging to work together to end alcohol overdose fatalities following a series of student deaths the previous year. The Call to Action acknowledged that alcohol misuse was a serious problem for the community and focused on addressing the problem head-on, including the perception of Chico State’s “party school” reputation.

The jokes and raised eyebrows about her university of choice is something Harris experienced firsthand.

“When I told people I’m coming to Chico State, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to a party school!’” said Harris. “But really being here and experiencing it, realizing it’s something different, it’s not what you heard. It’s not 20 years ago. It’s better now.”

Harris’ perception of a cultural shift is backed up by data. The University’s high-risk drinking rate has dropped significantly since 2013 from 63 to 48 percent (the national average is 41 percent), and surveys from the required AlcoholEDU online training for students now show that a quarter of Chico State’s incoming freshmen don’t drink at all.

“We’ve come so far,” said Seastrom. “It’s showing us more and more that—and I hear this from people on campus all the time—the culture is changing.”

The proof, Seastrom said, is in the increase in calls for help. She credits ROAR’s education and bystander intervention training for a significant spike in the number of calls for medical assistance during notorious “party days” such as Halloween and Cesar Chavez Day—calls that previously should have but would not have been made.

“Any one of those calls could have been a student death,” she said. “And because we’re teaching students not to be afraid and how to appropriately get help, and how to recognize when it’s a medical problem, we’re not losing as many students. We’re saving lives.”

For the first time this year, all incoming University Housing students were required to attend ROAR trainings the first week of school, before they hit the social scene. The experience gave new students a chance to hear from upperclassmen about the truths and myths surrounding alcohol in a non-judgmental space.

A classroom of students viewing a slide that reads "Alcohol poisoning versus alcohol overdose"

For the first time this year, all incoming University Housing students attended mandatory Wildcat ROAR trainings the first week of school to learn the signs of alcohol overdose and skills to keep themselves and others safe. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

ROAR also offers open sessions throughout the year, as well as special group sessions for student organizations, Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, Upward Bound, the REACH Program, international students, Admissions ambassadors, and others. To meet the growing demand, CADEC recently launched Team ROAR, a one-unit field study course where students can volunteer to support the program, in addition to its paid student staff.

Seastrom impresses upon all her staff how important their role is in saving lives through this program, which has really resonated with Harris.

“I struggled in the past with alcohol and drug use, so now coming here, I have a voice I felt like I never had before to educate others,” Harris said, noting that learning about the bystander effect through CADEC has made her more motivated to be the one who takes action. “It made it easier for me to be that person, to take that responsibility to help someone out.”

As CADEC continues to grow its ranks of Wildcat ROAR trainees, Seastrom has her eye on the future: creating a refresher course for a few years after a student’s first training as a way to reinvigorate them with ROAR’s safety messages and encourage them to continue to stand up.

“My hope is that they leave Chico and continue to be active bystanders in any situation where it’s called for. If something doesn’t seem right or look right … say something. You might be able to avert a tragedy, and that’s what we’re training [students] to do in this program,” said Seastrom. “I hope that they would take that kindness, responsibility, compassion, and respect mission of the program with them beyond Chico.

“And our students are so amazing here, I think that’s a given,” she added. “Most of them do leave Chico with that in their heart.”