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Few issues have been more challenging for colleges and universities to deal with recently than campus sexual assault. And this year, there's a new federal deadline for schools to have education and prevention programs fully up and running. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the mandate has prompted a flood of new ad pitches for schools to sift through.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's gone from a tiny niche market to an exploding industry. There's everything from fingernail polish that detects a date rape drug in drinks and necklaces that are actually mini panic buttons to all kinds of crash courses teaching students how to get consent.
SHARON POTTER: Like, every other day, there's a new group sprouting up, offering slick advertisements and products.
SMITH: University of New Hampshire researcher Sharon Potter says schools have been inundated.
POTTER: You know, corporations know that these administrators are panicking.
SMITH: Potter says she can hear it from some of the schools calling her for UNH's program called Bringing in the Bystander.
CAROLINE LEYVA: This is actually the most difficult exercise to facilitate.
SMITH: Caroline Levya runs a demo for about 20 administrators who've paid about $2000 for UNH's program and training. She runs through a series of hypotheticals, like say you see a girl who's really drunk going home from a party with a guy who's told you he wants to hook up with her.
LEYVA: Tell us what you decided to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So we looked at the pros and cons and felt that...
SMITH: This administrator proposes following the couple home to look out for the girl and then...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Also to have a talk with your friend if his intentions are less than honorable.
SMITH: Levya prods the administrators to think more like 19-year-olds who won't intervene, she says, if it means getting all preachy or holier-than-thou with their friends.
LEYVA: So help students be creative.
SMITH: For example, they could go interrupt and just ask if anybody wants to go for pizza. Or maybe just back up to a light switch, Levya says, then accidentally-on-purpose flip it on.
LEYVA: It is like deer in a headlight. It's going to halt the process to let that person have an out.
SMITH: Bringing in the Bystander can be run as one 90-minute session or several. It's one of the longer programs on the market.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Which of the following are examples of sexual coercion?
SMITH: Haven is a 45-minute online program that students do at home before they come to campus. It includes basic education, as well as its own hypothetical scenario.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This party's going to have a ton of hot chicks. I will be definitely be taking one home.
SMITH: If the student is stumped on how to intervene, he can spin for ideas.
ROB BUELOW: So this option is ask the person, are you OK?
SMITH: One of Haven's developers, Rob Buelow, says 600 campuses are running the program - twice what it was two years ago. Most paid between $10,000 and $20,000 a year. Part of the value, he says, is that schools get a way to document that they're complying with the law.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Be sure to e-sign to indicate that you have read and understand the policy.
SMITH: The company says exit surveys show students' attitudes improve after the course. But John Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor who studies prevention and runs programs of his own, is skeptical.
JOHN FOUBERT: These quick and dirty programs online are really good at marketing their product. But I'm not at all convinced that they're effective at doing much of anything, except documenting that policy's been met.
SMITH: Even more questionable to some experts are the bevy of mobile apps that promise to help curb assault.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Say the name of the person with whom you want to have sexual relations.
SMITH: This app called We-Consent records students agreeing to sexual activity.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tovia would like to have sexual relations with you. Do you consent?
SMITH: The app stores encrypted video of the OK, just in case it's needed down the road.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Consent confirmed. Have fun.
MICHAEL LISSACK: It is a very powerful tool.
SMITH: Developer Michael Lissack, a former Wall Street banker, is selling the app for $5 a year and is trying to get schools to buy it in bulk. He says Apple's App Store refused it, calling it, quote, "icky." But Lissack insists the app is exactly the kind of thing that's needed to change behavior.
LISSACK: It's not going to happen by people saying, oh, education. No, we all took driver's ed. How many of us speed? How many of us pass on the right?
SMITH: As new products flood the market, however, experts caution many don't help and some have even been proven to hurt. Professor Charlene Senn studies sexual assault prevention at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
CHARLENE SENN: That scares me because money is being poured into getting those programs that are homegrown, and usually that's a bad idea.
SMITH: Senn says her research suggests the most promising approach may actually be one that virtually no one is doing. That is to teach women ways to avoid assault. Most schools are loath to go there, fearing it'll be seen as victim blaming. But Senn says her method reduced rape by 50 percent, making it an approach schools can't afford to ignore.
SENN: You know, we do need to make stopping sexual violence everyone's problem, and that's a long-term solution. But women need the tools now.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So we'll stop here. We have certificates for you, so...
SMITH: Back at UNH, about two dozen administrators prepare head home to teach students about what they've learned, including Georgianna Melendez of UMass, Boston, one of many spurred to act by the new federal mandate.
GEORGIANNA MELENDEZ: It's making us step it up a lot faster. There were certainly some things we weren't engaged in yet. We were just talking about. So now it's sort of like you need to get this done.
SMITH: But worth noting, Melendez points out, the law requiring colleges to offer programs doesn't require students to take them. It's up to schools to decide whether to make any of these programs mandatory. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous Web version of this story incorrectly gave Caroline Leyva's surname as Levya. The name is also mispronounced in the audio.]
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