ReachOut is the new app fighting sexual assault on college campuses

ReachOut is the new app fighting sexual assault on college campuses

It recently came to light that Benjamin Holm, a student at Chicago's Loyola University, had attended the school for three years while also facing rape charges. Holm was accused of having raped a 15-year-old girl in 2013, when he was 18. Neither the administration nor the student body knew about the case until early December, when Holm was convicted and given 10 years in prison.

Holm's example is as unsurprising as it is disheartening. 

At perhaps no other moment has sexual assault, especially on college campuses, been so widely discussed. The narrative remains one of outrage: In 2017, how is this still happening? We might be talking about sexual violence more often, but the sad reality seems to be that a predator's history is of so little importance that it can go overlooked for the bulk of his college career. 

In a year that saw rapist after rapist walk away from the courtroom having received little to no punishment for their actions, one wonders: With critical media attention and legal action and popular protest and legislative reform falling short, what can actually cause change?

Sarah Zandi thinks technology could be that thing.

"This crisis is of such magnitude that there's no way to really combat it effectively unless every single student is committed to being an active part of the solution," Zandi, content editor for Capptivation, Inc., said in an interview.

In June, the company — started in 2014 by Zandi's brother and three of his friends — launched Reach Out - College Edition, a free mobile app that aims to both adjust the sexual culture on college campuses and put practical action in the hands of sexual assault survivors.

How Reach Out works

Available to more than 2,300 colleges and universities across the country, Reach Out offers sexual assault survivors a well of campus-specific resources, including counseling, advocate and health services; information on Title IX administrators and reporting processes; as well as a list of nearby medical centers and support hotlines. Its email service, Cappmail, aims to, Zandi said, "allay fears and build trust" by allowing users to ask questions anonymously. All of it is laid out in an easy-to-navigate format, organized by subject.

"No one consolidates their information the way that Capptivation does," Zandi said. "We are special because we are so efficient and informative and we treat ... students and survivors like people, we don't treat them like case studies."

It's the wealth of information that Dr. Monte Ezratty, a Bronx-based physician, says makes the app valuable. In a phone interview, Ezratty recalled his experience using the app over the summer, when a new patient — a 20-year-old woman — walked into his office and requested an STI test. She had been raped the day before. 

A general internist, Ezratty said treating sexual assault victims is something he's only done rarely during his 30 years practicing medicine. He opened Reach Out to find the nearest hospital that would perform a forensic exam.

"I got a ton of information that was incredibly helpful," he said, emphasizing that the speed with which he was able to access it made the app all the more useful. 

Ezratty also learned a few things, notably, that the patient did not need insurance coverage to get a forensic exam, that the hospital couldn't charge her for it and that she was entitled to an advocate. The woman was able to find counseling resources around her college that she could use upon her return in the fall.

"Part of this process, being sexually abused, is regaining control," Ezratty said. "She came into my office and was completely upset and didn't even want to talk about it, and now was loading an app and you could see, it was like, 'Okay, there is something I can do. There is help.' She was starting to regain control, which was terrific."

It's not the first of its kind

The overwhelming majority of sexual assault victims never seek help. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, an estimated one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted in college, and over 90% of victims will never report their assaults. Reach Out aims to change that, but how much an app can do to prevent sexual assault — or to improve the process of securing justice for survivors — remains debatable. 

And yet the concept of progress through apps is gaining traction: Even the U.S. Navy recently launched a trial run of LiveSafe, a program similar to Reach Out that offers an array of location-specific resources to assault victims. 

Many of the products pushed into the sphere of sexual assault prevention apps have certain shortcomings, though. Tech does better when it focuses on providing survivors resources and drawing bystanders in, and becomes contentious when it puts the onus for prevention on the victim.

A brusquely named app called I've-Been-Violated, for example, encourages the user to make a video recording of their story, as soon as possible after an assault occurs. It then encrypts and archives the video for the authorities, whenever the user chooses to send it. The assumption is that law enforcement won't believe the victim, which is an eminently valid concern. But, as Nora Caplan-Bricker wrote for Slate, "It also perpetuates the message that a survivor can't be trusted not to meddle with her account." 

The whiff of inherent skepticism makes an app like I've-Been-Violated a self-defeating proposition. But it's not the only type of preventative technology that's prompted side-eye from victim advocates. There are wearables equipped with a 911 button, for example, and nail polishes that change color when dipped in a roofied drink. Products like these obligate the victim to keep a crime from occurring in the first place, while also making assumptions about who that person is — namely, someone who wears jewelry and nail polish. 

Reach Out does not assume a most probable victim, nor does it reinforce stereotypes that complicate sexual assault reporting. Rather, it focuses on laying out all the resources a survivor might need and answering their questions. It also emphasizes education as a means of preventing assault, featuring videos on rape culture and the meaning of consent, highlighting the importance of bystander intervention. 

Whether or not this will have an effect is the question. Still, over 200 colleges and universities are under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for alleged violations of Title IX, the 1972 amendment that protects against sex-based discrimination in education. That means over 200 schools have allegedly failed to serve students in the wake of sexual assault or harassment, leaving those students feeling frustrated, alienated and alone. 

Making sure they have all the information at their finger tips as soon as they need it is Reach Out's top priority. Zandi recalled the statement the survivor in the Stanford rape case read Brock Turner in court.

"She writes in it, 'You bought me a ticket to a planet where I live by myself,'" Zandi said. "Our mission as a company is to try to help survivors find their way back home."