Smartphone Apps Could Change How Sexual Assaults Are Reported on College Campuses

The problem of sexual assault is finally gaining the attention it deserves, in large part due to the power of the #MeToo movement and other campaigns to publicize the prevalence and normalization of these criminal acts. But despite all that, reporting these incidents is still highly intimidating and even risky for victims. They may face disbelief, public ridicule, and even retaliation for coming forth with the truth and reclaiming their power.

Undergoing a physical examination and obtaining medical treatment is often too embarrassing. Although there were 7,357 urgent care centers in the U.S., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 36.2% of female victims who were injured during a rape received subsequent medical treatment. Even filing a report may be too hard for some: while an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, 63% of sexual assaults are never reported to police. On college campuses, the problem is even more pronounced, as more than 90% of sexual assault victims do not report. However, that could soon change, thanks to advancements in — of all things — smartphone application technology.

There are some big changes happening on college campuses in terms of how sexual assault is treated. While a recent University of New Hampshire study found that most of those on staff knew requirements pertaining to Title IX violation reporting and resources for students, some cases in the Midwest might change the way universities investigate claims of sexual assault.

According to some, the current reporting system is weighted to favor female students who file complaints. There’s no doubt that many (if not most) of the claims are likely legitimate, but there are those who feel the alleged victims file for other reasons, such as feelings of guilt or revenge. Some may argue that the students being accused don’t get a fair shake, which has prompted those purported perpetrators to take action of their own. A recent five-year study found that there has been a significant increase in the number of claims brought against higher education institutions by those accused of sexual assault; of all the claims examined, 100% of those alleged perpetrators were male.

Some judges feel that to eliminate the possibility of bias and to protect the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” universities should amend their reporting process. Instead of forcing a staff member to interview the parties involved and collect information, there may soon be a process put in place more akin to a live hearing that allows each side to ask the other party questions pertaining to the case.

But for those who have experienced sexual assault, that idea might sound even worse than relaying the incident to a trusted staff member. It’s highly possible that this new practice could further discourage those who have experienced these crimes from reporting them.

So what’s the solution? It might be found in a smartphone app.

One app, called JDoe, has already launched in cities all across the country, while the Callisto app has gained popularity on college campuses over the past few years. While several of these apps have been geared towards students, new versions are being marketed for those in the workplace and even in specific, oft-male-dominated industries. The apps offer new ways to report these crimes; those who have utilized them have said that it’s a lot less traumatizing than having to seek someone out in-person. Further, the reports are encrypted and allow the individual to either send it immediately to authorities or time-stamp the record and hold onto it until the victim feels ready to move forward. They can even keep their report in limbo until another person accuses their attacker of a similar crime. That could give victims the strength and confidence they need to officially file and potentially move forward with legal action.

Currently, the app options are a little limited. Callisto can be used only by those whose schools or employers buy into the program, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars per year for the organization. And while JDoe is free for the victims, the app charges its roster of attorneys who can access the platform to take on potential clients; the app also takes a small cut of any settlement reached.

And then there’s an app that could prevent sexual assaults from occurring in the first place. Florida State University grad Molly Cloonan developed an app called Social Safe, which allows users to automatically notify friends or family members if they feel uncomfortable in a given situation. Although the notification system is designed to look like a normal text message so as not to arouse suspicion from those who may be nearby, the app sends location information, the option to call the user, and the ability for the user to contact 9-1-1. The app will even start recording video if the user indicates they are not okay or does not respond to a prompt so that the saved evidence could be used later on if need be.

Technology may sometimes be vilified for exposing potentially personal details to the public. But these developments show that tech may be a necessary part of keeping us safe from those who want to harm us in real life.

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