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Enlisting Smartphones In The Campaign For Campus Safety

Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "Apps Against Abuse" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "Apps Against Abuse" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Technology – and particularly smartphones – could reshape safety efforts on college campuses. At least that's the hope of some developers.

Several new apps offer quick ways for college students facing unsafe or uncomfortable situations to reach out to their peers, connect with resources on campus and in their communities, or notify law enforcement.

These apps for the most part target sexual assault and rape, amid growing national concern about the prevalence of incidents and criticism of the ways colleges and universities are handling them.

Apps like , born out of a recent White House technology challenge, are now in use on campuses across the country.

You might think: Why does a student who feels unsafe need an app? You can't walk around a campus without seeing one of those blue-light call buttons.

The problem is that hardly anyone uses those, says Nancy Schwartzman, the creator of Circle of 6. What college students do use, she says, is a cell phone.

"Most young people first report sexual assault to a friend or a peer, not to the police or a blue safety light," Schwartzman says. "And they're always on their phone."

Who's In Your Circle?

Circle of 6 was born out of the 2011 "" challenge, a partnership between the Office of the Vice President, the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Here's how it works: A student who downloads the app picks six trusted friends to join a "circle." Then, if faced with an unsafe or dangerous situation, they can send a text to those friends with just two clicks.

They can quickly choose from among several pre-written messages. For example, "Call me and pretend you need me. I need an interruption." The texts even get more specific, like "Come and get me. I need help getting home safely. Call when you're close." That text automatically includes the sender's GPS location.

Circle of 6 allows students to access their personal networks – but also gives them the ability to tap into broader networks, like national hotlines and emergency numbers.

And it was created by sexual assault survivors.

"I know what I would have wanted," Schwartzman says. "I don't want to have to search through my phone and find out who's around. I've already had this conversation with six people I trust."

What's On The Market?

While Circle of 6 was one of the earliest apps to target campus sexual assault, many others have flooded app stores.

Some, like Here For You are being created by colleges. That app, from Loyola University in Chicago, provides students with if they're a victim of assault, as well as information on how to help a friend.

Created by a survivor of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, allows students to track crimes on campus. Users can report incidents, view a map and a list of reported activity, broadcast their location to family or friends for safety, or call or send a message to 911 or campus police. Students can also submit photos or audio to go along with a report.

LiveSafe also allows anonymous reporting – something its founders say might make college students more apt to report bullying, rape or sexual assault.

Then there's , which doesn't specifically say it's targeting colleges, but has a similar bent. You provide the app with emergency contact numbers in the setup phase, then let it know when you're going out alone — say, on a run or walking home from the library — and how long it will take you to reach your destination. At that time, the app texts you to check in. If you don't respond, it alerts your emergency contacts.

Of course, none of these are perfect solutions.

They all depend on having a charged cell phone and enough signal to get a message out. Many are limited by phone platform. And, in the case of Kitestring, it's targeting students who are traveling alone. Statistics show that most rapes and assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, not the stranger jumping out of the bushes as is often suggested in popular culture.

But they do provide students with a tangible tool that they previously lacked and proponents say they can be part of a comprehensive approach by colleges to curb instances of rape and assault.

"It's not a magic bullet. Prevention programming that's well done and smart and provocative and continuous is desperately needed," Schwartzman says.

Does It Work?

So students have smartphone apps in their hands, but do they actually help prevent assaults?

That's only part of the point, Schwartzman says. The other potential benefit for these tools, she says, is that they can help students get information about resources when an assault does happen.

Circle of 6 seeks to "put all the information that can help enhance safety in one place that's easy to find," Schwartzman says. Otherwise, she adds, "it's very confusing. Every campus is different."

She envisions Circle of 6 not as some kind of silver bullet, but part of a suite of options for students. And she means all students. Not just those who are assaulted, but their friends and classmates, too.

While these apps are first and foremost tools for students, colleges might also be able to learn something. At least that's the hope at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Williams is bringing Circle of 6 to its campus for a two-year pilot program, says Meg Bossong, the college's director of sexual assault prevention and response. The goal is to get real-time data that can inform future bystander education programming on campus.

So what does that mean, exactly? In a lot of ways, bystander intervention is just common sense. For example, if you're at a bar and see an intoxicated woman being harassed or groped by a man, the bystander should step in, intervene, and get the target out of the situation.

Circle of 6 and other apps are adding a technical aspect here. Instead of seeing bad behavior up close, student "bystanders" are responding to a text.

The pilot program at Williams will give students access to a customized version of the app. Instead of national hotlines and resources, they'll have the option to connect with resources locally or right on campus.

In return, Circle of 6 will provide Williams with data, Bossong explains, that the school will use to see not just how many students are using the app, but how they're using it.

"I think we're at a point where we need more data about how to best deploy bystander work on our campus," Bossong adds. "It's not just about the specific bystander skills, it's building a culture that is less accepting and less tolerant of sexual violence."

Thinking Outside The Phone

One campus safety tool that's still in the works isn't pocket-sized or smartphone based.

is an online reporting system for survivors of sexual assault that's still in development. The mission, according to Jessica Ladd, one of the creators, is to make it more empowering to report a sexual assault.

Ladd herself is a sexual assault survivor, and says her own reporting experience was less than empowering.

"It was confusing to know where to go, I wasn't even sure why I was doing it," she says. "It took me almost two years to report it. For many survivors it can take a long period of time. You don't always record what happened to you right after."

With Callisto, she says, survivors will go online, fill out a form documenting their assault and, respond to questions similar to those a law enforcement or campus official would ask. The site would then provide them with reporting options.

At that point, they could choose to file a report, or save it for later. They would also have a third option: to have their report submitted automatically if another person reports sexual violence at the hands of the same assailant.

"A lot of people who do report right now often do it because they heard through the rumor mill somehow or from a college administrator that their assailants have assaulted someone else," Ladd says.

While Callisto is still in development — it was presented at the recent White House Data Jam — Ladd says her goal is to launch a pilot in March.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Juana Summers is a political reporter for NPR covering demographics and culture. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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