Jessica Ladd was sexually assaulted while at Pomona College, just as one in five college women are. She says she found the reporting process, “more traumatic than the assault” itself. She felt “like I didn’t have control. A lack of agency. I wasn’t believed, and ended up regretting reporting.”
Ladd, now 31, put her experience “in a box in my mind.” She graduated, studied epidemiology and went to work in the area of STD prevention. But as the conversation started to change around sexual assault on campus, with the Obama administration pushing for schools to take a more active role in enforcement, she felt it was time to step forward and attack the problem.
Her solution is called Callisto: a software platform for secure online reporting of sexual abuse and harassment. It launched two and a half years ago and is currently in use on 12 campuses with a total of 149,000 students. It’s designed to increase the rate of reporting, the accuracy of reports, and give clearer, more actionable information both to survivors and to institutions. And it has one more special feature: It has the potential to help identify the repeat offenders who are thought to commit most sexual assaults.
Most research indicates that sexual crimes are underreported. One issue is that survivors may feel uncomfortable with something that has happened, but are unready or unwilling to make a formal accusation with their names attached.
Using Callisto, students can log on 24/7 to write a secure online account of their experience. The questions are based on best practices for investigating victims of traumatic events. The written account is encrypted and time-stamped. That feature is important, Ladd says, becasue when people report soon after an incident, recall is stronger and the details can be more clear. Ladd points to research that the time lag between sexual assaults and complaints on campuses averages 11 months.
Once they’ve written down what happened, students have several options. They can simply save it and come back to it at any time. They can send it to their campus Title IX coordinator as a formal complaint. They can download it and go directly to police. Or, there is a special option called “matching.” In this case, the survivor names the accused with a unique identifier like a Facebook profile. If, and only if, someone else accuses the same person, the survivor agrees that their own report will be surfaced to campus authorities.
“For a lot of victims, knowing they are not the only one can be an important part of deciding to disclose,” says Ladd. The cascade of #metoo revelations of the past several weeks, with one victim often echoed by several more, underscores that point.
“I need someone to be able to report at 2 a.m. from bed,” says Gretchen Dahlinger Means, who is both the Title IX coordinator and the director of equity and diversity at the University of Southern California. She hails the importance of Callisto in reaching a demographic of young people who “live on their phones.”
Many tools and companies like Callisto sprung up after the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Obama administration directed colleges to take a harder tack on Title IX enforcement.
There are now training programs for administrators, tracking programs for campus security staff and education programs for students — Dahlinger Means calls it the “rape-industrial complex.” But Callisto, she says, focuses on the issue of response, rather than prevention, and offers a service that is better targeted and more mission-driven than most.
And Callisto has been expanding its reach, even as Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has walked back that Obama-era guidance and called for a balance between the rights of victims and those of the accused.
Before Dahlinger Means started at USC, she was with the U.S. Marine Corps. She points out that both on campuses and in the military, institutions investigating Title IX complaints have a “duty of care” to both parties. And better information, she says, can help them execute that duty.
“I think Callisto is really an absolute good in terms of what it can offer students and campuses,” says Miriam Feldblum, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Pomona, Jess Ladd’s alma mater and another new Callisto client. “We advertise Callisto from the first day that students step on campus,” she says.
The number of reports of sexual assault have doubled across colleges using Callisto, says Ladd. Of those who log in, about half produce a written record, 20 percent choose to make a formal report, and 30 percent choose the “match” option.
Even if the record stays anonymous, colleges are getting useful high-level information, such as whether there is a large number of complaints during school breaks or around a specific campus location.
And, Ladd says, people using Callisto are speaking up faster: On average, they record what happens to them three months later, and if they choose to make a formal report, on average, they do so a month later.
Since sexual assault and harassment became a daily item in the headlines, Ladd’s small, all-woman-led nonprofit startup has been inundated with requests from business and nonprofits — “entertainment, technology, journalism,” she says. Funding is their biggest constraint right now.
Her ultimate vision is big: a central site where survivors, whether in school or in the workplace, can come to learn about their rights and tell their story — and if they name the same perpetrator, they can connect with each other securely.
“How do we start to give power back to victims? One of the ways is to help them find each other,” she says.