Smartphone Apps Help To Battle Campus Sexual Assaults

Aug 13, 2014
Originally published on August 14, 2014 8:02 am

NPR has been examining sexual assault on campus.

Dozens of U.S. colleges are being investigated over their handling of sexual assault claims.

Incoming freshman are especially vulnerable to those assaults.

The first six weeks of the semester are called the "red zone" when a student is most likely to experience rape or an attempted rape.

Amid all the concerns, there's new legislation in place for colleges, and there's hope that technology could help.

Several new smartphone apps offer quick ways for students facing dangerous or uncomfortable situations to reach out to friends, connect with resources on campus or call the police.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


All right, let's report now on a different kind of threat - sexual assault on campus. Dozens of colleges are being investigated over their handling of sexual assault cases. It turns out incoming freshmen are especially vulnerable. The first 6 weeks of the semester are known as the "red zone" when a student is most likely to experience rape or an attempted rape. NPR has been reporting on ways to prevent sexual assaults on campus. And this morning, some new technology. Several new smartphone apps offer quick ways for students who are facing dangerous or uncomfortable situations to reach out to friends, connect with resources on campus or call the police. We spoke with Juana Summers from NPR's Ed team.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: One of the most popular ones is something called the Circle of 6. And what it does - a person can pick six friends to reach out to at a moment's notice if they need help or support.

GREENE: Now, you say a moment's notice - I'm imagining someone being in a difficult situation where they feel like they're being threatened by a person they're with. I mean, you can't imagine they would have that much time to actually do something on their mobile device. What actually happens? What plays out here?

SUMMERS: You're exactly right. And that's one of the questions I asked Nancy Schwartzman, who's one of the creators of Circle of 6. And she said that it's really a two-click process - because a man or woman has already selected six friends as part of their circle, they can just click an icon, click again and it sends a text message to those friends. For example, call me and pretend you need me, I need an interruption. Another one is come and get me, I need help getting home safely. Call when you're close. And that'll actually add a GPS alert so the person can see where you are because sometimes if you're at an unfamiliar place, you might not have an address at your disposal. But you really need someone to be there in that moment.

GREENE: I see. And these are messages that have already been scripted out and that would automatically send to your six friends in your network.

SUMMERS: Absolutely. I tried it on my own iPhone. It's literally you click the icon that corresponds to what you want the friend to do, you click it again to fire off the text message. So it's really a matter of seconds. And that's what they're hoping will really make the difference.

GREENE: Now, I mean, college campuses have been dealing with this threat for a long time. It's the famous blue light phone boxes on campuses. Is this definitely some sort of improvement over those things?

SUMMERS: First of all, statistics show they're not really all that often used. And what's also really interesting is that research shows that most rapes and sexual assault that happen, happen from someone you know. It's not someone jumping out of the bushes when you're walking out of the library. But what people do have in their hands is a smartphone at all times, whether you're in the library or in a bar off-campus. You're more likely to have that piece of technology with you. And that's why so many developers are focusing on that.

GREENE: So let's imagine a scenario here - if someone has their smartphone, they do a click. It sends a message out to your six friends. You know, you've done your part to get the message out. You're relying though on these six people, or at least one of them, to actually do something and be available too.

SUMMERS: You absolutely are. And that's part of the cultural aspect of this that many of these developers talk about. It's creating a broader network of bystanders on campus. So while you might be alone in the room with someone who's perhaps making you uncomfortable, you're calling on your friends and you're letting them know hey, I'm counting on you to be here for me, to help me stay safe, to be part of my network and part of my support system.

GREENE: So have they actually tested this app yet? Is it effective?

SUMMERS: That is actually starting this fall. Circle of 6 will be going to Williams College in Massachusetts for a two-year pilot program. They will be rolling this out to freshman at orientation. So it'll be really interesting to see what that research says and how those men and women are able to build out their networks and use this as they'll be entering a new space in testing this out firsthand.

GREENE: So Circle of 6 is one of these. There some other apps that you've been looking at too?

SUMMERS: There are a number of other apps. Some are coming from colleges - Loyola University in Chicago for example recently released a campus-specific app. And some of these solutions - one of the more interesting ones I found actually doesn't have anything to do with your smartphone at all. It's a tool called Calysto, it's still in beta. And what Calysto aims to do is gives a person a safe space to say these are the very concrete details of what happened and when and how and then you can just store it there. You don't have to do anything with it.

At the end, you have three options - you can either trigger a report to law enforcement right then and there, you can choose to save the information, do nothing with it, come back to it later, just kind of leave it in the vault, or the third option is if you perhaps name your assailant or other person who's assaulted you, you then have the opportunity to trigger a report if more than one person says that they have been a victim of that person.

GREENE: That's Juana Summers from NPR's Ed team. Juana, thanks for coming by.

SUMMERS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: It's an important issue that NPR Ed team plans to keep covering. You hear their reporting here on MORNING EDITION and also on our sister program All Things Considered. We have much more here on MORNING EDITION and All Things Considered picks up where we left off later today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.