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Colleges Embrace Online Anonymous ‘Snitching’ to Fight Sexual Violence

It took Jessica Ladd over a year to tell her college that she was sexually assaulted by a friend, and when she finally had the courage, no one took her seriously.

“The experience of reporting was almost as traumatic as the assault itself,” said Ladd, now 30. “I felt unprepared … I felt really not believed, and I didn’t have any control over what was going to happen next.”

Ladd used her experience at Pomona College to create technology that allows students to confidentially record an assault before they are emotionally ready to trigger an investigation.

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“Reporting is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be that hard,” she told NBC News.

Jessica Ladd, founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations, was assaulted by a friend at Pomona College, then decided to help other women anonymously record their crimes. Christopher M. Howard / CM Howard

In 2011, she founded Sexual Health Innovations, and in 2015, the non-profit launched its online reporting system, Callisto, which is being used at Pomona College and at University of San Francisco in California. Four more colleges have signed up for the fall.

It's part of a growing movement: Many colleges, under increased scrutiny for sexual violence, are experimenting with new anonymous reporting tools to allow more victims to come forward.

An estimated 23 percent of all female and 5 percent of male students will experience rape or sexual assault during their undergraduate years, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

But many more crimes go unreported.

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Now, states like Minnesota and Connecticut have enacted laws requiring their colleges to implement websites where students can make anonymous complaints about sexual assault and harassment. An investigation is only launched when an official report is filed.

Some say these laws and other attempts to allow anonymous “snitching” go too far, opening the door to false accusations and recriminations.

“It’s Orwellian,” said John F. Banzhaf, III, professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School. “They don’t even have to tell you a complaint was filed.”

The person reported may never have a chance to defend himself, he said, jeopardizing a student or faculty member’s reputation and career. Banzhaf says he was falsely accused of harassment under an anonymous hotline reporting system that was set up at GWU in 2002.

“I found out when I was vacationing and got a long-distance call saying I had to get right back,” he told NBC News. “I was informed a high official received a complaint about me.”

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According to Banzhaf, a woman who had broken into his office “creating a ruckus” told authorities he had “acted in a rude manner.”

As a result of his efforts, the faculty voted to have the hotline dismantled.

Many schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, rely on mobile phone apps to anonymously report crimes. This intervention tool allows a student to alert campus police if a crime occurs.

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But these systems can be abused. In 2013, Occidental College was flooded by joke allegations by a group called “men’s rights” who were opposed to anonymous reporting in principle.

Only when these reporting systems are truly anonymous can the victim and the accused be truly safe, argues Ladd. On Callisto, details about an alleged crime are encrypted and only get released when the victim chooses to be identified and move forward with an actual report.

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Here’s how it works: The victim can create a confidential record of what happened — who was involved, where, and when it happened, and any visual evidence.

The student then has three options:

  • Save it with a time stamp; return at a later time to add details or officially file a report.
  • Report directly to the college, providing name and contact information.
  • Select “match” and agree to speak to officials when another student has recorded a perpetrator with the same unique identifiers.

Callisto provides the college with an anonymized aggregate report to see campus trouble spots and campus communities at risk for sexual violence.

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“We might tell them, there were 500 records in the system and 100 were officially reported to you,” said Callisto spokeswoman Tracey Vitchers. “We don’t give the name of the perpetrator or survivor. No identity is outed, so there is never a witch hunt.”

Pomona College told NBC News that Callisto, along with bystander training and hiring professional investigators, has “made a difference” in the fight against sexual violence “in all forms.”

“There's much greater awareness on campus about this resource, and we continue to get input from the community about Callisto and how it can be used to support survivors,” said Miriam Feldblum, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “And that's the goal: empowering survivors.”

As for Ladd, she says had she had Callisto, she could have taken “baby steps” toward facing her attacker. Right now, without accurate data, colleges are seeing only “a small sliver of the problem,” she said.

“There is a lot of self-blame,” said Ladd, who like many other victims, never officially pressed charges.