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The latest tools for sexual assault victims: Smartphone apps and software

Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s, is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27, 2018. (Erin Schaff/New York Times/Pool/AP)

In her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford detailed the agony involved in deciding to step forward with allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The depth of her trepidation may have surprised some, but victims of sexual assault such as Silicon Valley CEO Jess Ladd say it’s a common feature of victimhood.

“It often takes a lot of time for people to label what happened to them as assault,” explained Ladd, who has said she was assaulted as an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. “Once you’ve had your moment of realization that what occurred was wrong, then you have to ask, ‘Do I want to come forward?’ and, if I still believe my perpetrator is a good person, ‘Do I want to ruin the life of a good person?’”

“Blaming yourself can be easier,” she added.

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Because that decision is so trying and so personal for many assault survivors, Ladd founded Callisto, a nonprofit organization that has created software for reporting sexual misconduct on college campuses. The reports are time-stamped and saved on an encrypted database but not immediately submitted to authorities. The software tracks complaints and then flags those that involve a repeat offender, alerting victims and school officials in the process.

By letting a victim know that their assailant has been accused of targeting more than one person, Callisto aims to remove psychological barriers that make reporting assault so difficult, Ladd said. If a victim thinks their assailant may target even more people, she added, that can also be a powerful incentive to take action.

“You can go to the police, but most college survivors don’t have any interest in going to the police,” Ladd said. “Sometimes they just don’t want to see their assailant every day or to be on record in case they do it again. Sometimes they want that person to be talked to or expelled.”

For much of the past decade, dozens of apps and websites have been created to help survivors of sexual assault electronically record and report such crimes. They are designed to assist an enormous pool of potential victims. The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network reports that more than 11 percent of all college students — both graduate and undergraduate — experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Despite the prevalence of such incidents, less than 10 percent of victims on college campuses report their assaults, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

The apps range from electronic reporting tools such as JDoe to legal guides that provide victims with access to law enforcement and crisis counseling. Others help victims save and share relevant medical information in case of an assault. The app Uask includes a “panic button” that connects users with 911 or allows them to send emergency messages to people with their location.

Since its debut in 2015, Callisto’s software has been adopted by 12 college campuses — including Stanford, the University of Oregon and St. John’s University — and made available to more than 160,000 students, according to the company. Sexual assault survivors who visit Callisto are six times as likely to report, and 15 percent of those survivors have matched with another victim of the same assailant, the company claims.

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Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, told NPR that he sees potential problems with survivors “crowdsourcing” their decision to report assaults.

“I don’t think we want to have a standard where the decisions are crowdsourced,” he said. “I think what you want is to tell people [that] the criteria [for whether or not to report] are policy related, not personally related, and you should bring forward anything that fits the criteria, not [based on] whether you feel enough other people have made the complaint or not. We want to sometimes encourage people to do things they might feel uncomfortable about.”

Though many of those reporting tools are geared toward students on college campuses, Callisto is expanding the software to reach sexual assault victims working in Silicon Valley’s tech industry next. The software will pair victims who have been assaulted by the same perpetrator, allowing them to coordinate via an options counselor.

Ladd, who plans to launch the service by the end of 2018, said more than 20 percent of female founders of companies have been subjected to assault, often by venture capitalists from whom they are seeking investments.

“That’s a blind spot where there’s no reporting mechanism,” she said.