MANCHESTER, NH – You may have heard the statistic before, but it bears repeating: 1-in-5 women will be sexually assaulted during their college career.
I first learned this piece of information in a criminology class at UNH, during the same semester I became a Resident Assistant (RA) to 25 freshman in an all-female residence hall. I stared at my textbook horrified, realizing that the odds were high that at least a few of the fresh-faced 18 year-olds who I was in charge of keeping safe would probably end up victimized. Over the course of that year, and in the five years since, I have sadly found that my prediction was true. I have heard several of my former residents recall stories of their terrible experiences at parties, in dorm rooms, and other places around campus. Many of these women have graduated and grown up to lead happy lives, but I still cannot shake the thought that the assaults could have been prevented. I still wish that there was more that myself, and my school, could have done to protect these students.
The stories of my former residents – and the millions of other women like them who have been sexually victimized during college – inspire me every day in my current role as a researcher at Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC) at UNH. PIRC’s goal is to end sexual and relationship violence through research-based strategies, including bystander intervention training programs for high school and college students, social media marketing campaigns, and our latest tool: uSafeUS, a smartphone app aimed to prevent sexual assault and provide assistance to victims and their allies.
The development of uSafeUS took years of collaboration between PIRC and partners across the state of New Hampshire, including the NH Attorney General’s Office, the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and the UNH Manchester Computing Technology Program, among many others. As PIRC Co-Director and app developer, Dr. Sharyn Potter, likes to say, uSafeUS is truly a NH homegrown effort. In 2016, the beta version of the app, uSafeNH, was first tested at all New Hampshire colleges and universities, with students providing valuable feedback to improve the features and content of the app. Over the course of the last year, the uSafeUS team led by Dr. Potter and Project Manager, Becca Ludecke, has spent countless hours developing and marketing the app for the nationwide release that occurred last week.
Last Friday, I had the honor of participating in a Press Briefing for the national launch of uSafeUS, led by NH Attorney General, Gordon MacDonald. During the briefing, Becca and I demonstrated some of the prevention features the app has to offer, including Expect Me, which enables students walking alone to time themselves home to let a friend know when they arrive safely, and Angel Drink, which offers a discreet way for students to notify a bartender or wait staff that they may need help. A favorite feature of the app is Time to Leave, which was developed with feedback we gathered from focus groups with NH college students who wanted a quick and easy way to escape an uncomfortable situation, such as a bad date, without causing a scene and without involving others. In a live demo, Becca and I showed how Time to Leave allows users to generate a simulated text or phone call that provides an excuse to get out of an uncomfortable situation. “Yes, users could just text their friend and ask him or her to call them to get out of a situation, but what would happen if your friend wasn’t available or was in class?” Becca explained. “Time to Leave gives users the power to get out of an uncomfortable situation themselves.”
The app also offers features for survivors of sexual assault and their allies, including answers to questions and resources for immediate help. The What Now? feature gives a walkthrough of options for victims and advice on what steps to take after an assault has occurred. Colleges and universities across the country can purchase the app for their campus, and tailor the resources and contact information for their community. Purchase of uSafeUS also includes an implementation toolkit with communications and other launch tools, as well as anonymous usage statistics to see how many students are utilizing the app. Because the app was created in New Hampshire, students at all colleges and universities across the state will always have free access to uSafeUS.
In an ironic turn of events, hours before the Press Briefing on Friday, United States Department of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos announced she was rescinding Obama-era Title IX Guidance, that required schools to adopt a minimal standard of proof (e.g. “preponderance of the evidence”) and discipline students who were found responsible of perpetrating sexual assault on campus. With the revocation of federal protections, schools have more leniency to evaluate sexual assault cases on their own terms, making alleged sexual assault claims more difficult for complainants to prove. While DeVos’s announcement was disheartening, it also speaks to the importance of giving college students access to sexual assault prevention and response tools like uSafeUS.
Regardless of the political climate, or the strength of Title IX guidelines, sexual assault is a real occurrence that causes pain and hardship for students on college campuses, as well as K-12 students, every day. The 1-in-5 statistic has held true for decades, and the problem of campus sexual assault will not go away by pretending it does not exist. Instead, we must continue to develop resources like uSafeUS that empower students, and focus on changing the culture with the vision of a world free from violence.
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Rebecca Howard of Manchester is a Research & Technology Specialist at University of NH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center (PIRC).