Pioneering way to fight sexual assault on campus: phone apps

Several new smart phone apps designed to help prevent sexual assault at colleges – and even high schools – are coming online. They've had some surprising results.

As they head to campus parties or out on dates, thousands of college students are switching from the traditional “buddy system” to mobile apps that help them reach trusted friends and emergency contacts if they feel threatened.

The tools may help ease concerns among college students who have heard the alarming statistics about sexual assault – in one major survey, nearly 30 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced an attempted or actual assault either before or during college.

Beyond the safety factor, though, the new apps are raising awareness about how to help prevent dating abuse and sexual violence. 

Circle of 6 is a free app that uses icons to discreetly alert six contacts to a variety of scenarios: A simple tap on a car icon sends a “come and get me” text message to your circle and shows where you are with GPS. Another icon asks them to call to interrupt an uncomfortable date or other situation. Another connects to well-respected national hotlines or a local emergency number.

Jessica Kan, for one, has been eagerly anticipating the Android app, which was released Thursday, since hearing about Circle of 6 on Twitter a few months ago.

The recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley, still lives in Berkeley and plans to use the “really cool” app when she’s coming home late at night or is in a “shady situation” on a date. “Sometimes, I don’t want to be rude … and say I just want to leave now, so it makes it easy and discreet,” she says.

On campus, Ms. Kan adds, the service that provides bus rides or walks home late at night often gets backlogged, so Circle of 6 will provide a faster way for people to get help.

Circle of 6 app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times since it launched six months ago for iPhone. About 6 in 10 college students use smart phones, and even those with regular cellphones can still be included in someone’s circle and receive the Circle of 6 text alerts.

“We thought it was important to put the power in the users’ hands to make these choices during the day – ‘Who are the friends that I trust?’ – instead of having to fumble around with your phone … in the middle of the night,” says Nancy Schwartzman, a co-creator of Circle of 6 and executive director of The Line Campaign Inc., a nonprofit devoted to preventing sexual violence.

But Circle of 6 seeks to be more than emergency tool. One icon connects to resources on healthy relationships and sends a non-emergency text to friends to let them know you are unsure about a relationship.

“Many times, particularly young women are worried about whether their relationship is healthy or ‘normal.’ They take these relationship quizzes, but they do it in isolation,” says Deb Levine, Circle of 6 co-creator and executive director of ISIS, a nonprofit that promotes sexual health and positive relationships.

Often friends have noticed troubling signs in a relationship but haven’t known what to do. This feature of the app “allows friends to initiate a conversation,” Ms. Levine says.

Circle of 6 and OnWatch, another app aimed at connecting college students with peers and emergency services, won the White House’s Apps Against Abuse Technology Challenge in 2011. Forbes reports that there are dozens of women’s personal-safety apps for iPhones. But OnWatch spokeswoman Medora Heilbron says OnWatch and Circle of 6 represent a “completely new concept, so you have to educate people that [the apps] are there to support them in their safety and they can plan to be safe.”

In Washington, D.C., a new app called U ASK (University Assault. Services. Knowledge.) gives easy access to resources at college campuses and the wider community in the event of a sexual assault or threat. If the pilot goes well, similar apps may be developed for other cities or statewide university systems, says Jared Watkins, development coordinator for Men Can Stop Rape, a nonprofit in Washington.

Apps such as Circle of 6 can get men involved in helping to prevent sexual violence, Mr. Watkins says. When women include male friends and relatives their circle, he says, it nudges them “to educate themselves about sexual assault, and it might lead to them being more active bystanders in everyday situations, including [standing up to] sexism and rape jokes.”

One outcome the developers didn’t anticipate – high school and middle school educators using the apps to launch conversations about dating violence. It affects between 9 percent and 34 percent of adolescents, but 8 out of 10 school counselors report that their schools have few if any resources to address the issue, according to the magazine Pediatrics.

Since the launch of Circle of 6, more than 4,000 people have pledged on Facebook to help stop dating violence and sexual assault. Developers plan to release a related tool kit for educators later this month.

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