Using Your Phone And Friends To Prevent Sexual Assault

Sep 4, 2015

Many colleges are already holding classes while others will start after Labor Day.  Over the past couple years governmental leaders and victims have increasingly called attention to sexual assault on campuses across the country. Using a pilot program at a local college, one company is working to combat the issue with technology.

Last September the White House launched the “It’s On Us” public awareness campaign aimed at preventing sexual assault on campuses nationwide. During a press conference at the White House, President Obama said one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college years yet only 12 percent of attacks are reported. He said men who are assaulted are even less likely to speak out.

“This is not your fight alone,” President Obama said. “This is on all of us. Every one of us to fight campus sexual assault. You are not alone and we have your back and we are going to organize campus by campus, city by city, state by state. This entire country is going make sure that we understand what this is about and that we’re going to put a stop to it.”

A technology called Circle of 6 won a 2011 White House and Health and Human Services Apps Against Abuse challenge. It works like this. You pick six people you trust from your phone's contact list to form your circle. And with two taps, one to activate the app and another to send a message, an alert is sent to everyone in your circle.

“The app is embedded with pre-programmed messages with easy user functionality,” said CEO Nancy Schwartzman. “The messages are ‘Come and get me, I need help,’ ‘Send your GPS location to your circle,’ ‘Call and interrupt me,’ ‘I need to get out of this situation,’ and ‘I need to talk.’”

The app also has hotlines for relationship abuse, sexual assault and mental health.

“The app’s user interface is very simple and social-looking,” she said. “So nothing about it when you pull it out looks like danger, alert or anything like that.”

The app was piloted last year at Williams College, which has about 2,100 students. A unique version tailored for the school was downloaded more than 2,700 times in its first year, according to Williams. University versions contain campus safety and other local resources featuring the school’s logo and colors.

“Schools can hinge all of their programming and use Circle of 6 to talk about sexual assault, intimate partner violence, accountability and community in a really non-threatening way,” Schwartzman said. “They can do programs around it and then remind everyone to download it. They can train all of their resident advisors to know how to use Circle of 6 and make them have their entire floor download it when they arrive. They can check up in a month or two ‘Hey you guys, are you still using Circle of 6? Have you updated your circle? Do you need me to be in your circle?’”

Last year, a former Williams student who says she was sexually assaulted by a member of the men’s hockey team in 2012 accused the school’s leaders of mishandling her case. Media outlets covered the incident after the woman and her family complained that the alleged attacker was suspended, but not expelled.

Data from Circle of 6 shows the app was opened an average of 134 times a day in the Williams community. In a survey addressing the same bystander behaviors encouraged by the app, 52 percent of 1,300 respondents at Williams said they interrupted a conversation when one person appeared to be making another feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

“So already using the app and their education it’s breaking taboos,” she said. “Really what it’s showing is a behavior change that ‘OK, we are going to talk about this and this is a collective solution because this is a community problem.’”

The app is also active at UCLA along with Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Schwartzman says it will launch at University of Houston and an 80,000-student high school system in Virginia in October. Overall there are more than 300,000 users mostly in the U.S., but spanning 36 countries. She says the Air Force Academy recommends it for its cadets. There are 80,000 users of a Hindi version in New Delhi, India, which was launched after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman that made international news. Schwartzman says the app is designed as a prevention tool.

“We want the app to be use right at the beginning of a situation,” Schwartzman said.”So ‘It’s late tonight and I’m leaving a party and I don’t see my friends’ or ‘I’ve been studying late at the library.’ I don’t want someone to have to make a choice that’s not ideal like ‘Do I cross campus at 3 o’clock in the morning by myself?’ or ‘Do I stay at this party and hope someone will walk me home?’

Click here to learn more about Circle of 6.