How Smartphone Apps Could Change The Way Sexual Assault Is Reported Developers of these apps hope to encourage more reporting and hasten the identification of repeat offenders. But some say this approach could be problematic for victims and the accused.
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How Smartphone Apps Could Change The Way Sexual Assault Is Reported

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How Smartphone Apps Could Change The Way Sexual Assault Is Reported

How Smartphone Apps Could Change The Way Sexual Assault Is Reported

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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By most accounts, the majority of people who experience sexual harassment or assault never report what happened to them. High tech may have a solution - apps that can help survivors come forward. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's easy to understand the many reasons why alleged victims don't want to report. There's the worry they won't be believed, fear of reprisals and embarrassment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That was really hard for me to think about - telling another person, especially someone you've never really had contact with before.

SMITH: This woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, says she was sexually harassed at college by another student. And even though it was making her depressed and anxious, she couldn't bring herself to tell authorities at school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Because I was afraid of being blamed for it.

SMITH: It wasn't until spring break when she was back in the comfort of her own home, literally under her covers, that she mustered up the resolve to finally get it out not face to face but through an app on her laptop.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It was almost like building courage behind a computer screen because nobody is judging you at that moment. So you can get it off your chest without questioning if somebody's going to believe you.

SMITH: The app she used called Callisto lets users send an encrypted report directly to school officials or to keep it on hold until they're ready. Users can also choose to hold a report unless and until someone else accuses the same person. That's big for survivors who fear going it alone and for those who may question whether what happened was just a misunderstanding or a one-time misstep, as Ryan Soscia once did. Years after he says he was molested as a kid, Soscia says he reported it just recently on a brand-new app he developed himself called JDoe.

RYAN SOSCIA: You can either pretend it didn't happen, or you could say, I'm going to make sure you pay for this.

SMITH: Soscia says the real inspiration for his app came a few years ago at a high school graduation party when a friend revealed he'd been molested. Within hours, Soscia says nearly 10 others disclosed the same person did the same thing to them. And only after realizing their strength in numbers did his friends go to the police. That got Soscia thinking about how technology could help ensure those kinds of discoveries are no longer left to serendipity.

SOSCIA: We can find those connections exponentially faster. So the hope is we're going to be able to prevent these types of crimes from happening. And the idea that that could have stopped this from happening to 10 other people - that's really powerful.

SMITH: While the Callisto app can only be used by people whose colleges or companies buy in for what could be $10,000 to $30,000 a year, the JDoe model allows anyone to use the app for free. Funding comes instead from a stable of attorneys who pay anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 a year for access to potentially lucrative civil cases. The lawyers all agree to take the cases on contingency. JDoe also gets a kicker if they win. But clients pay nothing upfront.

JAMES HALL: It's a win-win-win.

SMITH: Attorney James Hall was among the first to sign up. He says survivors end up with stronger cases. Instead of he said, she said, they're he said, they said. Lawyers get better odds of winning and bigger payouts. And defendants, Hall says, get reassurance that bogus claims will be screened out.

HALL: If it's a frivolous case, most lawyers are going to recognize that there will not be any money at the end of the day, that it's not going to be profitable. It's going to waste your time and should not be brought.

SMITH: But others worry that getting everyone to lawyer up from the get-go might hurt more than it helps. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The Wharton School, also questions the basic concept of survivors deciding whether to report based on what others have done.

PETER CAPPELLI: I think what you want is to tell people the criteria are policy related. They're not personally related. And you should bring forward anything that fits the criteria and not, you know, whether you feel enough other people have made the complaint or not.

SMITH: Cappelli and others also raise concerns about due process.

CYNTHIA GARRETT: You know, it's a permanent registry of unsubstantiated #MeToo-style accusations. And the reports will remain even if a student was found not responsible.

SMITH: Cynthia Garrett is with a group that represents accused students called Families Advocating for Campus Equality. She worries that complaints can be filed without the accused even knowing. Then it would take only one new claim to match with the old unfounded or untried ones, she says, to ruin a career.

GARRETT: And when somebody down the road makes this complaint for, oh, God, he made a sexual joke that was inappropriate and the app shows up, oh, there's been previous reports, an employer will interpret that as more than it may have been. But the problem is that decades later, they have no way to defend themselves.

SMITH: Developers dismiss those concerns, saying reporting apps are just a kind of tip line for allegations that will ultimately be vetted by humans. As the student who reported her harassment by app says, the apps are neither judge nor jury.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's not a verdict. That's where a campus comes in. They can do a full-blown investigation. And if the investigation comes out as false, then it comes out as false. And if it comes out as true, then we take further action.

SMITH: In her case, school officials issued a mutual no-contact order, and the harassment stopped. If her only reporting option was walking into a stranger's office in some campus administration building, this student says, she probably would still be suffering in silence. Tovia Smith, NPR News.


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