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Could Syracuse Bartenders Stop Domestic Violence Before it Occurs? Vera House Program Hopes So

John Smith/WAER News

A training program is providing observational skills to recognize and spot sexual and relationship violence in bars and restaurants in Armory Square.  The ‘Raise the Bar’ program from Vera House also aims to prevent or stop sexual harassment.

It’s a Thursday night in Armory Square and Kitty Hoynes is busy.  However, on this particular night, perhaps it’s even busier.  Bartenders are serving people and donating all of their tips to Vera House.  It’s a nod to recognize their work and to also give back after receiving specialized training to spot things out of the ordinary that could be suspicious.

Everyone seems to be having a good time mingling.  However, the Men’s Outreach Coordinator of Vera House George Kilpatrick says sometimes things can change.

 “In many of the cases resulting in assault alcohol plays a factor. And the fact that so many establishments that serve alcohol are participating in the program is a great thing, because those places are a first line of defense where a lot of things can go wrong.”

A longtime Kitty Hoynes bartender shared with me that not too long after their Raise the Bar training session, an incident occurred where they had to intervene. 

Back to this night, Men and women are conversing in the bar area and a small stage has a table filled with the 25th annual White Ribbon Campaign items.  Special Events Coordinator Hannah Fuller says it really gets the issue out front and center.

 “It’s an incredibly accessible initiative.  It’s a month and anybody in Syracuse can take part in it, financially or not.  It’s chiefly an awareness campaign, so any involvement at all, we consider a huge bonus.  So, people coming out to this at all tonight and even seeing our shirts, wristbands and pins, we consider that a success.”

Fuller’s boyfriend, Josh Burgmeier also supports Vera House efforts in the community.

“A lot of issues with domestic and sexual violence that happen.  I haven’t had it luckily touch my life but I’ve learned through her and other people I’ve met since then… that it’s widespread, more than most people think.  It’s awesome to see Vera House.  As far as I know, they’re one of the best around that do deal with that issue.”

Towards the end of the evening a young lady who appeared visibly upset was being comforted by others.  I was told that she was likely going to be seeking assistance from Vera House.

Credit John Smith/WAER News
Raise the Bar is a Vera House program training restaurant and bar staff to recognize signs of abuse, that can be displayed in public.

Raise the Bar was recently recognized at the 2019 Non-Profit Awards to make a difference to protect and improve the quality of life of people in bad relationships.  Healthy Environment Project Coordinator Brittany Pryor explains that the collaborative side of the training makes all the difference.

“It is very inclusive to everybody who is in the room and the conversation pulls those people in the room together.  So, you get the experience from those that are seasoned with it and you get the experience for those who are new to it.  That conversation leads that and they all learn from one another at the same time.”  

Case in point, the STOOP in Armory Square has changed the way it looks at its building to monitor all four floors, according to Front End Manager Genissa Hart.

“It helped bring a part some big changes in the way of bringing in mirrors in the building, walkie talkies because we’re working across four floors.  So, we had a lot of blind spots and I would say that was the biggest thing that working with Vera House brought to us was how to see our building better.”

Hart says they haven’t really witnessed relationship violence issues.

The training was even more involved for Funk n’ Waffles where Owner Adam Gold says 70 percent of his staff are considered front facing and required four Raise the Bar training sessions.  Looking for visual cues that people might not be having fun and there is a problem.  Usually all seems cool because...

“We have a cover charge.  That scares a lot of people who are just out there to be a jerk, ya know.  Sort of like, if they don’t want to pay to come in and see the music, I think we kind of lose a lot of that riff-raff right off the front.  But anytime, like I said, ya know, we’re just keeping are eye  making sure everyone’s safe and this program really helps us and learn more about how to do that.”

… All of the bartenders, cooks, front door security at the establishment have been trained. Vera House’s Kilpatrick says everyone who is out can be empowered to check on people if they suspect domestic disturbances.

“If you see something… it could be as simple as asking the time of somebody or asking if someone is ok or giving someone the (Vera House) bracelet and inside the bracelet is 24-hour hotline.”

Once Vera House is finished offering training for Armory Square bars and restaurants and throughout the city, the plan is to expand the training in other areas of the county.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that three-quarters of female victims of all intimate partner violence have been victimized by the same offender.  The Vera House 24-hour crisis and support line is (315) 468-3260.  They remind those who are in immediate danger to call 911.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.