By Monica Sun | August 20, 2015
MPH Student, Tulane University | 2015 Kirby Summer Intern, ETR
Currently, there is heated debate on how colleges are handling campus sexual assault cases. One in every 4 or 5 women (between 20%-25%) will experience a sexual assault during her academic year. Nearly 5% of college women will face this experience in any calendar year. These statistics emphasize the significance of the issue and the importance of finding mechanisms to reduce these rates.
Within the U.S. Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have introduced bills (H.R.1490 and S.706) that require colleges receiving certain types of federal funding to designate an independent advocate to oversee campus sexual assault prevention and responses. A bipartisan group of representatives has just introduced a bill (H.R.2680) designed to remedy the tendency of colleges to cover up and under-report incidents.
It’s not only the government that is trying to improve efforts of colleges to effectively investigate sexual assault cases. Many organizations are developing mobile apps for students and young adults to use to protect themselves with the involvement of the community.
One app is called Circle of 6. It promotes the motto, “No matter how you identify on the sexuality and gender spectrum, whether you're in a relationship, or hooking up for the first time, everyone has the right to say no, and the right to be treated with respect.” It allows the user to choose six individuals, whether friends or family members, as part of their “circle.” The circle will be notified by the user if he or she feels unsafe walking home alone.
It only takes two taps to send a message asking for support. A user’s circle will be given GPS location information. They can electronically follow the user until he or she arrives safely at the intended destination.
There is also a phone icon people can use if they need an interruption in an uncomfortable situation, such as a date or party. Resources and hotlines are also installed in the app. These can be browsed at leisure or utilized in emergency situations.
The LiveSafe app employs comparable mechanisms for users to stay protected and have peace of mind when they travel alone on college campuses. This application is currently used at 23 institutions across the country, including Arizona State University and Virginia Tech.
Other web-based and mobile apps employ the use of community intervention, with individuals reporting incidents and uploading pictures to make the public more aware and cautious of certain situations and individuals. One web-based movement called Hollaback! allows users to share their stories of street harassment, both physical and verbal, to garner the support of the community in ending the problems. The movement, driven by activists across the country, emphasizes that individuals are not alone in coping with these situations. The power is in voicing their concerns and experiences rather than staying silent.
Some other applications that are currently used across the country include bSafe, Rave Guardian and Callisto. U Ask is specific to eight college campuses in Washington D.C. Each of these apps has something a little different to offer. bSafe has location-sharing that can help friends keep track of a user, a “fake call” feature that offers the user a good excuse to get out of a bad date, and a safety timer that sends alerts for help if the user doesn’t check in before it expires. Rave Guardian offers a panic button, tip texting of crimes or incidents, and also has a safety timer. Callisto allows users to submit time-stamped incident reports online without being obligated to make a formal or legal report. They can decide later if they want to use the information.
With a wide selection of apps now available to students, our next step is to raise awareness about them on college campuses across the country. In many cases, the apps are free for students to take advantage of to make their college experiences and communities safer. I believe that these apps illustrate the power of technology in enabling communities to protect themselves. While I don’t believe that an app, in and of itself, is likely to restructure the climate around sexual assault on campuses, I think they bring a fine contribution to the broader effort that will be necessary. These are creative steps in a positive direction.
Monica Sun is an MPH student in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University. She is also one of ETR’s 2015 Kirby Summer Interns. She has a particular interest in focusing on the health needs of underserved populations and looks forward to working with new and different populations during her internship at ETR.