Can a computer program reverse the trending up of campus sexual assault?

The movie “The Hunting Ground” changed the national dialogue in 2016 after uncovering patterns surrounding sexual violence on college campuses.  The film was credited for creating a nationwide debate on sexual violence. Two years later, what has been done to make colleges safer?

Sexual violence has since gained copious amounts of national media attention. Such as the “me too” campaign, reports of workplace assault, and celebrity accusations.

Today, the public is addressing the systemic patterns that have allowed sexual violence to be ignored. Survivors are speaking up like never before, and institutions, such as employers and universities, are taking more action.

Universities face perhaps the most pressure to address sexual violence, because a college campus is oftentimes a “perfect storm” for assault to occur. College women aged 18 to 22 are the most likely to be affected by sexual assault.

American universities are inextricably associated with large parties with alcohol. With that said, alcohol plays a large role in sexual violence. According to research conducted by RAINN, the national rape crisis hotline, 90 percent of all sexual assaults occur when one or both parties are under the influence of alcohol.

In addition college women have a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted. The prevalence of sexual violence is 22 percent higher for women who are in college than those of the same age who are not.

As “The Hunting Ground” showed, college administrations have often failed survivors for many years, creating unsafe environments that have failed to stop sexual violence. The film addresses many cases where perpetrators were allowed back on campus or given minimal sanctions for the assault. In a culture where one out of every four women will experience violence, survivors have made it clear these minimal punishments and negligent behaviors are no longer acceptable.

As it was discussed in “The Hunting Ground”, reporting an assault is often the most difficult aspect of being a survivor. Many survivors of sexual violence fail to report their experience out of shame, fear of retaliation from their assailants, or because they feel their report won’t be believed.

One instance in the film where issues with reporting were exposed was at Florida State University. The documentary exposed the emotional hardship, lack of legal assistance, police cover-ups and public shame Erica Kinsman experienced after she accused former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston of raping her in 2012. At the time, they were both students and Winston was a desirable recruit for the NFL draft. Kinsman’s accusations were kept from court, and her assault – and character – were openly debated on the national sports circuit, drafting a narrative of victim-blaming.

Ms.Kinsman’s experience became an extremely public example of the problems college survivors face when they choose to report their assault. Often the reports survivors make are not believed by authorities, or the police fail to investigate or take appropriate measures. Most of all, the trouble and public nature of prosecuting an assailant often contributes to the emotional trauma of the initial assault.

According to RAINN, the national sexual violence hotline, two out of every three acts of sexual violence are not reported to officials. As for the reporting rates on college campuses? Even lower.

Once these flaws were exposed, some people such as Jessica Ladd decided to find a new way to empower survivors.

Ladd is a founder of Callisto, which is a non-profit organization that creates technology to combat sexual assault and empower survivors. Callisto has focused on improving reporting methods for college survivors of sexual assault.

A Ted Talk in February 2016 laid out Callisto’s research findings, and found that only 10 percent of college assault survivors report their experiences to administrators, police or other authorities. Of those who choose to report their encounters, survivors wait an average of 11 months to do so.

“There are many reasons why survivors don’t report and why they often delay. The vast majority (85 percent) of college sexual assault survivors know their assailant,” reads a statement from the Callisto website.

When explaining the reasons for low reporting rates, the Callisto site reads “It often takes time for survivors to label what happened to them as assault or to want to report.” It adds, “College students also often fear they won’t be believed, that their friends or parents will find out, or that they’ll experience negative social repercussions.”

Ladd said “90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders. But with such low reporting rates, it’s fairly unlikely that even repeat perpetrators will be reported, much less anything happen if they are.”

Ladd added: “We started by talking to college survivors. And what they wish they’d had in college is pretty simple; they wanted a website, one they could use at the time and place that felt safest to them with clearly written information about their reporting options, with the ability to electronically report their assault, rather than having the first step to go in and talk to someone who may or may not believe them.”

So Callisto was created. Ladd said the type of system that survivors wanted is a type of private, secure space where survivors can choose what to do with their records. With Callisto, survivors can create a time stamped account and store it in a secure online source. The system will store that information if a survivor isn’t ready to immediately submit it to the university.

Survivors also have the option to re-enter the system at any time and submit a report to their university. Survivors can choose an option, referencing an “information escrow”, in which an incident is reported to the university only if the same offender has been identified by another student in another, separate incident. This scenario pairs students with corroborating survivors, and provides the university with the opportunity to more accurately identify serial rapists on campus.

Additionally, survivors also can record multiple experiences through the Callisto web program. For example, if someone is in a harmful relationship, each occurrence of relationship violence can be documented in the system, again giving agency to the survivor when he/she chooses to formally report the situation.

The Callisto method provides survivors the opportunity to create a time-stamped, secure record of sexual assault.

In doing so, survivors are able to decide what happens with their account. Moreover, survivors can have their reports partnered with those who have the same assailant – improving the credibility of their reports, and more importantly, catching repeat offenders much earlier on.

“If you think about asking someone to report someone they have classes or mutual friends with, it feels scary,” said Ashley Schwedt, Callisto’s director of campus relationships. She adds, “A ‘match’ can give survivors the confidence that they will be believed, so they don’t worry as much about the social repercussions.”

Since it was founded, Castillo has been introduced on 13 different campuses, including the University of Denver, the University of Oregon, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University.

In an email from Catherine Glaze, the Title IX coordinator at Stanford University, she said  “The structure of Callisto aims to provide agency to survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse, giving them options as they think through these very difficult issues,”

In an assessment report of Callisto users, studies indicate that students who had access to the Callisto website were five times more likely to report their assault to authorities compared to survivors who did not.

Additionally, students with a Callisto account created a record within three months of an incident, and reported to the university after four months. This is a great improvement to the average 11 month timeline for a non-Callisto using survivor.

Perhaps most importantly, users with an account matched their reports with another survivor one in five times, showing the importance of cross referencing reports.

Moving forward, Ladd hopes to bring the program to other campuses nationwide with the goal to reduce sexual violence for college students.

As she said in her speech “We don’t have to live in a world where 99 percent of rapists get away with it. We can create one where those who do wrong are held accountable, where survivors get the support and justice they deserve, where the authorities get the information they need, and where there’s a real deterrent to violating the rights of another human being.”

Most campus reporting options provide survivors with a one-size-fits-all response: they can report in person to the police, a counselor, or the Title IX office at their university. However, people process trauma in a multitude of different ways. The claimed effectiveness of Callisto lies in that it provides more options to survivors, so they have agency to choose the reporting style that best suits them.

This personalized and empowering approach to reporting sexual assault answers many of the issues “The Hunting Ground” asked of campus communities. By providing survivors with a space to band together with other survivors, reports will be taken more seriously.

Under the program, campuses are held accountable for each report, and information is given to authorities much more effectively. Even further, by expanding the avenues available to report sexual violence, survivors on college campuses are finally arriving to get the support, justice, and respect long overdue from their institutions.

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