The XX Factor

Stanford Becomes the Most Prominent School Yet to Adopt a Sexual Assault Reporting App

Stanford student carries a sign in a show of solidarity for a rape victim during graduation ceremonies on June 12, 2016.

Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Stanford University became the most prominent college yet to announce that it will use a reporting system called Callisto to combat sexual assault on campus.

Callisto, which launched in 2015, quickly set itself apart from the host of other apps and companies cropping up to cater to colleges on this issue. As Tyler Kingkade wrote at the Huffington Post, that might have a lot to do with the extensive feedback the platform’s designers, at the nonprofit Sexual Health Innovations, solicited from survivors of campus sexual assault to figure out which features would actually be salutary. (The organization’s executive director Jessica Ladd is a survivor herself, and has said that Callisto grew out of her own negative experience reporting an assault when she was in college.) Stanford, which will launch a three-year pilot in May, will become Callisto’s eighth user, to be followed by an as-yet-undisclosed ninth this summer.

Pomona College and the University of San Francisco were the first to try the platform, followed by two schools in Iowa—Coe College and Central College—and three in New York state: St. John’s University, Canisius College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

For survivors, reporting a sexual assault raises fraught questions. Coming forward can set in motion an overwhelming disciplinary process, perhaps aggravating a trauma that hasn’t had time to heal. Many students wait to report—an average of 11 months, according to Callisto—but this can undermine their accounts in the eyes of administrators. Some students stay silent because of uncertainty about how to label what happened to them; others hang back out of fear that they won’t be believed.

Callisto provides students with three options: They can report the assault to their school’s Title IX coordinator from the privacy of a dorm room, typing up the details and submitting them electronically. They can save the report on Callisto’s encrypted database, recording details while they’re fresh and time-stamping the account for possible submission later on. Or, they can select a third option: to reveal the saved report to administrators only if it “matches” another entry in the database—or, in other words, only if another person has reported, or later reports, the same perpetrator. This feature is designed to single out serial assailants while providing survivors a sense of safety in numbers.

“If you think about asking someone to report someone they have classes or mutual friends with, it feels scary,” Ashley Schwedt, Callisto’s director of campus relationships, told me. A “match” can give survivors the confidence that “they will be believed, so they don’t worry as much about the social repercussions.” For some, it can corroborate an instinct they may not have fully trusted, or alleviate self-doubt that was holding them back.

An estimated one-in-five women are sexually assaulted in college, and the number is even higher for trans and gender non-conforming students. Roughly one-in-20 men are also believed to be victims of assault in college. But these figures are inexact, because only a fraction of survivors come forward. Callisto attempts to address this problem by turning the saved, encrypted reports in its database into anonymous data-points, balancing survivors’ desire for privacy with colleges’ efforts to understand the extent of sexual violence on their campuses.

Stanford’s announcement caps an academic year of rapid growth at Callisto, where Schwedt says the team has more than doubled—from four people to nine—since last summer. Founder Ladd has ambitions of expanding beyond university campuses. In April, the Upright Citizens Brigade school, and incubator for improv and sketch comedy in New York and Los Angeles, announced that it would adopt the platform for its students. Schwedt says partnerships with military branches and academies are also on the organization’s wish list. In the meantime, Callisto’s code is open source and available for others to copy. As Ladd recently told CNN, “I want people to take this idea and run with it.”