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Groups Educate Downtown Bars on Sexual Assault Prevention

The Cottage works in the community to raise awareness and facilitate the healing of individuals and families affected by sexual violence. Credit: Sarah Ann White

Public safety is a persistent hot topic downtown, especially during football season when crime tends to rise. While COVID has introduced new triggering issues like pandemic protocols, the community is still fighting against age-old atrocities, namely sexual assault.

New signs sit on top of old spots downtown, but the memory of news headlines and incidents in the area make many feel uneasy. In the case of The Warehouse (346 E. Broad St.), new ownership is putting to rest a darker history with hopes of creating a “safe,” inclusive party hotspot on the east end of downtown. Previously Hedges on Broad, the ex-owner of this location and 100 Proof, David Ellis Ippisch, was indicted on charges of rape and kidnapping on Feb. 11 of last year. In May 2020, Brian and Taylor Cowart took over the 100 Proof location, renaming it The Rowdy Goose, followed by The Warehouse location in January 2021.

“Being [a] female [owner] and understanding where females come from in the party scene, we want everyone to feel comfortable and safe,” says Taylor. “The bartenders know that they can point to whomever it is, and security knows without questions asked they’re leaving.” 

The husband and wife team have implemented an extensive interviewing and training process for all staff. Security is trained on how to deal with potential situations, how to identify signs of someone being uncomfortable, and how to handle issues that involve the opposite gender. Female door staff, security and management present helps to ensure that there is someone available to put patrons at ease who may be uncomfortable with a male staff member.

Educating and screening staff in regards to sexual violence has been largely left to the owners and managers of downtown establishments; however, there is a new education opportunity in the works. The Cottage Sexual Assault Center, the University Health Center’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) office and Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle have come together to create an Athens-centric bystander intervention training program for sexual violence tailored to the service industry. Houle approached Sally Kimel-Sheppard, executive director of The Cottage, many years ago on behalf of Athens for Everyone seeking collaboration on local prevention training based on programs starting nationally. Kimel-Sheppard says, “Bystander intervention is where someone who is not directly involved in the incident becomes directly or indirectly involved in something that could be or is happening to prevent something worse from happening.”
Once Houle joined the commission, discussions began once again between them and Kimel-Sheppard, but COVID slowed any progress down. This summer, Creature Comforts Brewing Co. reached out to Kimel-Sheppard seeking sexual violence prevention training and offering its space for the taproom staff to discuss sexual harrassment and violence, not only in the workplace, but because the type of work that they do puts them in the situation to help patrons. The Cottage specializes in sexual assault response, which comes after an incident, but because of this the staff is aware of a problem of sexual violence beginning in places like downtown venues and bars. At this point, RSVP was invited to collaborate in creating an official training program due to its experience in conducting bystander intervention training for special interest groups and incoming freshmen on campus.

“Unfortunately, too much of what we do as a society is build infrastructure to respond to bad stuff after it happens,” says Houle. “So I think we need to take seriously prevention… In my view, that’s the core purpose of public institutions is to look out for people’s wellbeing, and I do believe that the best way we can do that is to try to build a culture, and systems within that culture, in keeping that wellbeing and not struggling to get it back.”

Since late August, the intervention program has been facilitated at Creature Comforts Brewing Co., Flicker Theatre & Bar, Hi-Lo Lounge and Little Kings Shuffle Club, which includes staff members who also work at Manhattan Bar and Ciné. At this time, RSVP is putting together collected data, such as similar programs proven successful around the nation, to present to the mayor and commission for their support. Measuring success in terms of prevention is tricky—success relates to attitude changes, in this case where staff feels confident and equipped to intervene during an incident of threatened or percieved sexual violence. 

If the mayor and commission approve of the program, Kimel-Sheppard hopes that downtown venue, bar and restaurant owners will view bystander intervention training as worthwhile. “That could be a big picture of less sexual assault actually happening in Athens. That could lead to a change in attitude so that we could be a community that really looks out for each other,” says Kimel-Sheppard.

The Cottage’s director of adult services, Linnea Ionno, explains that while incidents actually taking place in downtown Athens are relatively few, there is a problem in how many assaults are initiated from interactions downtown before moving to a more private location. It is also important to be aware that a large number of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor. Of The Cottage’s Clarke County clients from January to October of this year, 70% of them knew the perpetrator in some capacity, while less than 1% were assaulted by a complete stranger.

“There is a difference between prevention of sexual assault and risk reduction,” Linnea says. “There are standard things we are all taught to reduce our risk of being harmed in any capacity, like never going out alone, having friends to keep an eye out, keeping your drink within view at all times, sharing your location with safe people, etc. But again, these risk reduction strategies don’t help specifically when the perpetrator is a partner or friend or someone you trust already.”

For information about support, help and advocacy online, visit The Cottage at and RSVP at For immediate assistance 24/7, The Cottage’s hotline is 706-353-1912 (toll free 877-363-1912), and RSVP’s hotline is 706-542-SAFE.