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Colleges Utilizing Web Tool to Curb Sexual Assaults

In 2014, Dr. Penny Smith created Keys to Coping, an online sexual assault reporting tool, hoping to transform the way colleges and universities handle reports of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking on their campuses.

The web-based tool is newly modified to increase victim support for students, bystander intervention training and risk mitigation for institutions, even as the Department of Education debates potential rollbacks to Obama-era Title IX policies regarding reporting and investigating sexual assaults on campus.

Dr. Penny SmithDr. Penny Smith

Smith, president and CEO of Alegria Technologies and a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, made it her mission to break the silence surrounding sexual assaults on college campuses and universities.

The former higher education administrator says she realized that colleges were scrambling for prevention options, rather than reporting options. After speaking to administrators at nearly 60 institutions, Smith says she realized schools were concerned that a technology tool like Keys to Coping would increase the number of reports, “thereby making them appear to not be safe,” she says.

The doubts almost forced Smith to “shut down the whole company,” she adds. However, she attempted to shift the paradigm from “‘We need to break the silence’ to ‘It’s OK to know … and the more you know, the more [assaults] you can prevent.’”

In the four schools that have implemented the Keys to Coping tool — Central State University, Kentucky State University, Delta State University and Lincoln University — student feedback shows that the reporting tool is making a difference.

At Central State, the tool’s pilot site, 60 percent of students responded that Keys to Coping changed their views for the better regarding how the administration handles campus sexual assault prevention and intervention, Smith says.

“Since the implementation of Keys to Coping, we are starting to see an influx in reporting,” says Dr. Stephanie L. Krah, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Central State. “This is a good thing because we are able to assist survivors with getting the necessary support early.”

She says that students are also more aware of key points of contact they can notify if or when an incident occurs.

There are three steps to using the tool: First, users should go to their school’s personalized Keys to Coping URL link; second, they must register their accounts; and, third, they must answer 22 questions.

Anyone at an institution can submit a sexual assault report — students, bystanders, faculty, or administrators. And if individuals choose to withhold their names and remain anonymous, they must still use valid email addresses to submit their reports.

“We specifically set up questions that, in a typical forensic interview, don’t get addressed,” Smith says. The answer options range from drop-down selections to free responses, and an individual has the choice to “answer some, all, (or) a few” of the questions on the online reporting tool.

The report also allows a person to capture and describe any injuries using a blank image of an anatomical human figure.

“This is important for prosecution purposes,” and especially for women of color, Smith says, whose injuries often don’t show and may go unreported in prosecutions of rape.

She emphasizes that it is very important for people to identify everything, “whether it’s a scratch, a bruise,” and to help students understand that an injury doesn’t have to be as extreme as a black eye, a broken arm or deadly injuries.

When a person submits a report, the individual and the institution’s “super user” — usually the Title IX director — both receive a date- and time-stamped PDF copy of the report. If an individual wishes to update the report, he or she can log back in, answer a question or change an answer and receive a new, time-stamped copy.

Keys to Coping adds a therapeutic aspect to the student reporting process, offering five different coping tools. These include a self-report coping survey that the student can use as data to advance their counseling needs if necessary and the chance to write a victim impact statement or letter.

“They can choose to either write a letter to their perpetrator, or if they’re literally in a situation where they do plan to go to court and attempt to get an indictment, it walks them through the steps of what are the important components of a strong and compelling victim impact statement,” Smith says.

The reporting tool is not for schools to air their “dirty laundry,” she says, but it is a means to collect actual data that the schools can then use to customize solutions and prevent sexual assaults at their institutions.

“I really had to help institutions become comfortable with their truths,” Smith says.

This was due in part, she says, to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that found that a surprising 89 percent of colleges reported zero incidents of rape in 2015, despite research showing that campus sexual assault is “far too common,” according to a statement on the organization’s website.

A National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) information sheet states that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.

National debates on how to enforce Title IX — the 1972 law requiring schools to protect students from rape, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination — led to a contentious series of meetings in July between Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and advocates for victims as well as men who say they were falsely accused, and higher education officials.

Advocates for survivors of sexual assault urged the education secretary to keep federal protections in place. Men at the meetings who said they were falsely accused, however, claimed that the burden of proof for prosecuting sexual assaults on campuses was too low — even though only a small fraction of reported rapes are found to be false.

After backlash from survivors’ advocates, DeVos asserted: “No student should be the victim of sexual assault. . .  No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her.”

In response to the new administration’s pending rollbacks on Title IX investigations of colleges and universities’ handling of sexual assaults, Smith says institutions should not become more lenient on sexual assault cases and campus safety “for the next three or four, eight, [or] however many years.”

Keys to Coping attempts to help institutions uphold their Title IX responsibilities, while simultaneously giving sexual assault victims the opportunity to control the information they share in order to receive — or not receive — support, Smith adds.

She says a series of questions titled “Attestation and Intent” asks: “Have you reported? Do you want to report? Do you want to report now or in the future?” Some schools may decide to investigate an incident although a student does not want to officially report the incident to law enforcement officials.

This gives institutions the chance to say, “‘I understand you said that you didn’t want any assistance at this time. Here’s where you can come when you want it. And based on our policies, here’s what we still have to do,’” Smith tells Diverse. “This is marrying the concept of victim support and risk mitigation.”

“I didn’t want colleges to feel helpless in this scenario,” Smith says. “For example, if that victim says, ‘No, I don’t want to do anything about it,’ but then later on they file a lawsuit, the institution can say ‘We have a date and time-stamped record of when this student told us they didn’t report, didn’t intend to report, and didn’t want us to do anything about it.’ And then the school can still have a record of the steps that they tried to take to make sure other students would be safe.”

Smith and Central State also partnered to expand prevention strategies through a bystander intervention program titled Keys to Courage, which was based on student feedback. With “No Means Know,” Central State’s grant-funded bystander intervention program, and the Keys to Courage program, 77 percent of students responded that they would also use the Keys to Coping reporting tool to report bystander knowledge of an incident, she says.

“For bystanders, they feel that it provides a sense of safety for them because they can report anonymously,” Krah told Diverse, citing feedback from a staff member at Central State.

“We (also) wanted to have a diversity spin,” specifically addressing affinity groups like Black Greek-lettered organizations (BGLOs) and athletes, Smith says. In one example, Smith and Central State held a focus group that discussed various angles of bystander intervention in a potential sexual assault from an athlete’s perspective.

The workshops at Central State highlighted key areas of focus for faculty and provoked insightful dialogue about sexual assaults on campus and beyond, Krah says. “Students felt open and comfortable to have this safe space to discuss issues and concerns regarding consent, identification of assault on campus, intervention, prevention, and awareness,” she adds.

“Keys to Courage informed us on how we may better advocate for students who have been survivors of sexual assault as well as strategies we can use to continue to support all of our students,” the Central State administrator says.

Alegria Technologies has plans for an official soft launch of Keys to Coping soon, and Central State plans to expand its usage of Keys to Coping and Keys to Courage in order to create more safe spaces for students to “share their thoughts and experiences as a survivor and/or bystander,” Krah says.

Meanwhile, around the country, many sexual assaults on campuses still go unreported. In some instances, a college or university may have previously misclassified an incident that was indeed a sexual assault. To compensate for this, schools like the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have expanded resources for victims and implemented online training and prevention strategies for students. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University have created Special Victims Units within the campus police department. However, Title IX experts agree that there is room for improvement in the way and police departments handle sexual assaults.

As national debates about sexual assaults on college campuses rage on, institutions must keep moving forward in their work to stop sexual violence, Smith says.


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