Students develop app to prevent sexual assault on college campuses

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Last school year, Mike Bojanowski and five of his fellow Carnegie Mellon graduate students began developing a mobile app to help students prevent sexual assault on college campuses.

"We wanted to remove barriers people may have when it comes to speaking up," Bojanowski said.

Under the direction of the university's Integrated Innovation Institute, they created NightOwl, which is designed to let a group of, say, students at a frat party, communicate anonymously with each other to report dangerous situations.


If a user spots someone who appears to be trying to take advantage of a young woman, but is too shy to speak up, Bojanowski said, he can send a message asking if anyone knows the guy and can intervene. The app is also designed to include built-in suggestions on how to handle similar situations.

Bojanowski said the group heard from students that "oftentimes it's these somewhat ambiguous sort of suspicious situations that can lead to something worse down the line.”


He maintains a close relationship with the institute, which is working on developing the idea into a working app for wider use.

It's the kind of sexual assault prevention the Obama administration has sought to encourage: for students, by students.


On Friday, the White House launched a new campaign called "It's On Us," which urges college students, particularly young men, to tackle sexual assault on their campuses.

Two hundred colleges around the country have joined the effort.

Studies suggest that one in five women is sexually assaulted during college, often during the first few weeks of freshman year when students are at their most vulnerable. The real rate could be even higher, since many assaults go unreported.


The administration hopes by engaging more young people, providing guidelines for how schools should respond to assaults, and launching public service campaigns featuring celebrities and athletes, it can help to raise awareness about sexual assaults.

But some advocates say the government should be doing more to crack down on perpetrators.


"It just seems that so much of this is symbolic," said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a Columbia University senior who was raped during her freshman year and is the co-founder of a student activist group called No Red Tape.

Ridolfi-Starr is a lead complainant in a Title IX case against Columbia University for what she and other students say is the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus.


Under Title IX, the government can remove federal funding from schools who fail to protect students from sexual assault, but it's a punishment considered so severe that it has never been used.

Ridolfi-Starr would like to see a more moderate fine, such as one percent of a school's operating budget. She'd also like to see the government direct more staffing and resources toward the offices that investigate complaints so they don't get backlogged.


"That would be a huge step in the right direction," she said. "Survivors like myself are just stuck here in a dangerous situation with no one to turn to."

Bojanowski hopes that innovations like NightOwl can increase awareness.

"Before this," he said, "I didn't realize it was as prevalent an issue as it is."


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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