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Cottage Industry on Preventing Sexual Assault
A quick search for terms like "campus safety" and "sexual assault" on the Apple App Store reveals dozens of applications marketed toward worried college students. Circle of 6 allows users to send text message alerts to six pre-selected friends. VizSafe lets users post and watch videos of areas they might feel are unsafe. OnWatch provides a suite of safety and reporting tools -- for $19.99.
And it's not just mobile apps. From risk management firms to educational programs to products like fingernail polish that can detect date rape drugs, students and administrators have an increasing number of supposed prevention methods to choose from. Driven by a greater level of legal and federal scrutiny in recent years, a cottage industry is growing around campus sexual assault.
Companies and firms dealing with sexual assault prevention have been expanding rapidly over the past few years, following the release of the Education Department's Dear Colleague letter in 2011, said Dana Bolger, co-founder of Know Your Title IX, a student advocacy group. The letter served as the federal government's call to action about campus sexual assault, Bolger said, and "schools started getting scared the law might actually be enforced for once."
In the last decade the University Risk Management and Insurance Association's membership has more than doubled. One of the largest firms, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, has worked with 3,000 campus clients, according to its co-founder and president, Brett Sokolow. The Association of Title IX Coordinators, or ATIXA, was also founded by Sokolow and has trained more than 2,000 Title IX investigators since the Dear Colleague letter announced that the federal government would be leveraging Title IX to combat campus sexual assault. NCHERM is also a law firm, currently representing 50 colleges and universities.
NCHERM helps universities deal with more than sexual assault, Sokolow said, but he has seen a definite uptick in that portion of the center's work since the release of the letter.
"I think the increased complexity of many issues, regulations, laws, and responsibilities, has created a heightened need for consulting expertise in a number of arenas," he said. "The way that Title IX impacts on campus sexual violence and other forms of discrimination is technical, complex, and challenging. It is natural for campuses to turn to experts for advice, and for many colleges, we are their lawyers or have the expertise that can help them as they wrestle with complicated and layered issues."
At George Washington University, one consultant has even become a temporary, de facto assistant Title IX coordinator.
The university's previous deputy coordinator left the university in November and, since May, Ann Franke, president of the consulting firm Wise Results LLC, has taken on some of her duties while the university tries to fill the position. "Wise Results will assist us while we conduct our search for permanent staff," the university said in a statement, adding that it is spending the next few months assessing and modifying its sexual assault policies.
Franke declined to comment on her role at the university, but said as a consultant she usually refers colleges to free or cheap resources rather than expensive in-person training. Universities should use caution, she said, when considering pricey consultants and programs that offer "prepackaged solutions" or who have taken public positions that may cast doubt on their objectivity.
"Many reasonably priced sources of advice exist about preventing and responding to campus sexual assault," Franke said. "Unless a consultant has the magic formula for ending all campus sexual assault, I'd be wary of firms charging large sums of money. "
Despite their expense, groups like NCHERM and law firms like Pepper Hamilton have found success with college administrators. They're also finding a growing level of mistrust among students and survivors of sexual assault.
NCHERM has been on the defensive in recent months, issuing press releases to combat news articles and blog posts questioning the center's motives. Bolger said the mistrust of consulting groups stems from the firms' focus on protecting a campus's image rather than preventing sexual assault.
"They're all about eliminating risks to universities, which doesn't necessarily translate into eliminating risk to students," she said. "If instead their services prioritized student safety and equity, maybe things would be different. Right now, it feels a lot like they're profiting off students' rapes."
Sokolow, however, said the criticism is a result of NCHERM taking controversial positions such as pushing for rapists to be expelled and calling for honoring the rights of both complainants and respondents during campus investigations.
"You don't build a client base like ours unless you are trustworthy," he said. "We don't please everyone, but no one who is trying to change the status quo ever does."
Like consulting firms, there has also been an increase in sexual assault prevention programs since 2011, said Rob Buelow, an associate director at EverFi. Through consulting services and its online sexual assault prevention course called Haven, EverFi currently works with nearly 80 universities, including Dartmouth College, Duke University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The pricing of the program depends on the size of the institution. Similar courses can cost up to $50,000.
"We're not chasing ambulances," Buelow said of EverFi. "Haven's been around in some form for six years. But I do see a number or programs popping up now as a result of the increased pressure on colleges. We think about prevention as a process, not a program. Colleges should think about prevention in the same way. Don't go with any vendors that are offering a one-stop solution."
On the less-controversial side of the industry are campus safety products and mobile apps, which are often marketed directly to students.
Several were actually created by young entrepreneurs still in college, and a handful were developed by universities. Undercover Colors, the nail polish that changes color when dipped in a drink that's been tampered with, was created by four male undergraduates at North Carolina State University. LiveSafe, an app that allows students to report and keep track of crimes on campus and has been downloaded about 26,000 times, was developed by a survivor of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
Bolger said products like these are "well-intentioned," but she questioned their effectiveness, saying that the majority of them place the burden on the victim to prevent his or her own rape, rather than on bystander prevention or on the perpetrators.
"They completely ignore that most victims are raped by someone they know and trust," she said. "How will dialing a phone number help a victim of dating violence? Who do you call when the person trying to rape you is a friend?"
Recently, two teams of students at the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University created mobile apps that do focus on bystander prevention.
NightOwl is a social platform that allows students at parties to message the host or other guests about song recommendations, food choices, and any safety issues they spot. The messages disappear after the party is over. Spot (A Problem) lets users send messages about safety concerns to a designated risk manager at events like fraternity parties. The message is sent to both an app on the manager's phone and a wristband.
Jonathan Cagan, co-director of the institute, said he teaches students that products can be marketable and help tackle difficult social challenges at the same time.
"One of our big drivers for many years has been that students should understand that their skills can have a positive impact on society," Cagan said. "We think it's fabulous if students want to work for a car company or a consumer products company. That's what we train them for. But they can also use those same skills to solve some really hard societal problems."
Cagan said the next step for the student teams is to find corporate sponsors and partners to help produce and sell the apps.
"If you want to make a difference, you have to bring those products to market," he said. "But you can do it for impact, not for profit."
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