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Knoxville bartenders trained to identify, prevent sexual assault through Safe Bar Initiative

The "Safe Bar Initiative" works with bars and restaurants in bystander intervention, helping workers identify behaviors and prevent sexual violence.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Alcohol is involved in around half of all reported sexual assaults across the nation. Many times, victims are targeted at bars and restaurants.

The Safe Bar Initiative aims to decrease the amount of sexual violence occurring in Tennessee nightlife. Once workers at a bar go through the training, it becomes certified as a "Safe Bar" through the Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee.

The initiative engages bar owners and staff, training them on how to recognize the signs of potential sexual violence or unwanted behaviors. It also trains people on how to safely intervene and respond to situations, while also showing how alcohol and drugs play a role in sexual violence.

So far in Knoxville, five bars have taken the training sessions. This means more than a dozen bartenders in Knoxville are trained in identifying and preventing sexual assault.

"They actually hosted the class here for us, and they just kind of went through identifying harassment and like sexual assault situations," said Morgan White, a bartender at the Knox Brew Hub.

It is one of five bars in Knoxville that is Safe Bar certified, located downtown near Market Square.

"It can happen anywhere, at any time, to any gender of patron," said Stephanie Carson, the owner of Barrelhouse by Gypsy Circus.

Gypsy Circus is another one of five bars that are Safe Bar certified in Knoxville.

To protect everyone in the bar, Carson said employees are taught to recognize specific behaviors that could be red flags for sexual violence.

"Anything that relates to racism, homophobia, transphobia — any of those are all very interconnected to sexual violence and sexual harassment," said Jeff Ohmes, a trainer for the initiative.

Carson also said the training helps prevent victim-blaming, demonstrating that just because someone decides to drink with someone else does not mean they are asking for sex.

"We're told that women who drink are asking for it and Safe Bar comes in and tosses that away," said one organizer of the initiative.

White said she learned valuable prevention techniques for potentially dangerous situations.

"If someone wants to buy someone a beer, everything's not always well-intended," White said. "So just kind of dropping in being like, 'Hey, this person wants to buy you a beer like, are you sure you're really okay with that?'"

White said since going through the training, she's been more intentional about checking in with customers at the bar.

"I definitely have been more mindful as a bartender of situations," White said.

She said she hopes the Safe Bar Initiative can spread throughout all the Knoxville bars and restaurants. 

"Hopefully we can have all the Knoxville breweries on Bar Safe training. It's a way to just kind of keep the beer community a really safe, inviting open space for everybody," White said.

The training is free and only takes a few hours to complete. A lot of it involves showing workers different examples of red flags and showing them how to properly respond.

"We give people all of these different examples to help them understand along the way," Ohmes said.

Bars interested in the training can reach out to the Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee online. The initiative also partners with the Tennessee Department of Health.

"We hope that other bars in Knoxville follow suit," Carson said.