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Software for reporting sexual assault

Warning! This essay may contain profanity.

Warning! This essay discusses the reporting of sexual assault. It may be triggering to some readers.

Note: There may be humor in this essay on a matter that is both important and sensitive. All humor is either inadvertent or borne out of anger and frustration.

I thought I was done ranting for awhile. And then this happened. (No, don’t worry; I was not sexually assaulted and I am not aware of anyone I know who has recently been sexually assaulted [1]. But it has to do with the systems we have for reporting sexual assault.)

The other day, a student asked whether I might consider having the students in our software design practicum build something similar to Callisto, a system for recording notes on (and, optionally, reporting) sexual assault. From the Web site, Callisto seems very well conceived. For example, Callisto allows survivors/victims to enter reports so that they have a record, even if they don’t submit them. It also lets the people submit the reports anonymously, not only when they enter the reports, but any time in the future. Perhaps most importantly, given the recent case at University of Wisconsin Madison, it lets people enter a report and indicate that it should only be forwarded if another person names the same assailant.

My first inclination was Let’s check with our Title IX officer. She’d probably have some thoughts. Among other things, she’d want to make sure that it offers resources along the way. So I wrote. And her response was reasonable, approximately:

We looked into it. But it’s a service. What happens if we decide to switch systems, or if they can’t continue? We have a legal and moral obligation to retain records, even if we don’t have access to those records.

But she also said something else. If a person names someone through EthicsPoint, we can do a match test, and they stay anonymous. Now, that’s not quite the same thing as Don’t submit my report unless there’s a match, but it’s something. So I decided to look further.

EthicsPoint is our software system for anonymous reporting. (There are many other mechanisms for reporting; this one is intended to make it possible for students to report anonymously.) As far as I can tell, EthicsPoint was designed primarily by HR Professionals and Lawyers rather than by actual caring human beings. That is, its job is to get facts down for instances in which we might decide to terminate someone, or be in legal danger, or whatever. Would I use it to anonymously report sexual assault? Well, let’s see …

First, I click Make a Report. Look! There are about eight main categories each with about a dozen subcategories. Which should I choose? Let’s look …

Academic Affairs. Nope. Accounting and Financial. Nope. Human Resources. Nope. Well, I guess I might want to report someone for making me use this site. Information Technology. Nope. Medical. Nope. Research. Nope. Risk and Safety Matters. Nope. Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, or Misconduct (Title IX). Maybe. What do they list as the subcategories? Sexual Harassment, Sexual Discrimination, Sexual Misconduct, Dating/Partner Misconduct. Hmmm … I don’t see Sexual Assault at all. But this category seems to be the closest, so let’s try.

The next page brings us some definitions. I’m including them here to give you a sense of what it’s like to try to read through them [2].

Dating/Partner Misconduct: Retaliation in the workplace or classroom consists of activities such as the following: disciplinary demotion or termination; unjustified evaluation, reports, or grades; suspensions with or without pay; loss of normal work or class assignments; denial of access to information; demonstrating a pattern of oppressive supervision; setting of special conditions of employment or study that are not applied to other employees or students; extension of probationary period; denial of customary commendation letters; and untrue statements to prospective employers or institutions of higher education.

Nope. Is that even the right definition?

Sexual Discrimination: Unfavorable treatment because of a person’s sex. Sex discrimination also can involve treating someone less favorably because of his/her/hir connection with an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain sex.

While I appreciate the understanding that there is not just a gender binary, this also does not apply. At least the definition seems to meet the term.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, submission to or rejection of such conduct is an explicit or implicit condition of an individual’s employment, evaluation of academic work or participation in social or extracurricular activities; or submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for decisions affecting the individual; or such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual’s work or academic performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, demeaning, or sexually offensive working, academic or social environment.

Closer. But assault is not an advance or request.

Sexual Misconduct: Sexual misconduct is a term used to describe a set of behaviors, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and/or discrimination.

While I find it strange that this category (sexual misconduct) includes the previous category (sexual harassment), I have found the one that includes assault.

What next? One has to agree to Terms and Conditions. While I think that interferes with the reporting process, I also kind of understand them wanting to cover their ass.

There are lots of optional fields: Location where incident occurred (a big text area plus City, State, Zip, Country). A required question Do you wish to remain ANONYMOUS [3] for this report? Does that really have to be required? Can’t I just not enter information? Oh well, I click Yes and move on.

Please identify the person(s) engaged in this behavior. That makes sense, although it’s odd that they are asking for title. Oh, this question is also required, but we are allowed to write Unknown for the name.

Do you suspect or know that a supervisor or management is involved? Options are Yes, No and Do Not Know / Do Not Wish To Disclose. Why are they even asking this? Ah! I see, Any persons mentioned here will be restricted by EthicsPoint from access to this reported information. That makes almost sense.

Is management aware of this problem? Why is that relevant? At this point, my preferred reaction is Who gives a fuck? I’m done [4].

But maybe it’s just me. So I asked a friend what they’d do if they had been assaulted and wanted to report. Their first inclination was to look at the paragraph that reads as follows:

If you experience or witness sexual assault, Grinnell College’s Sexual Respect and Title IX page provides resources as well as additional (confidential and non-confidential) reporting options.

What did they do? They followed the link. That brings up a friendly statement that we are leaving the EthicsPoint site. If you click continue, you get the following message (at least on my browser):

Security Warning The information you have entered on this page will be sent over an insecure connection and could be read by a third party. Are you sure you want to send this information?

That’s a bit scary. My friend, however, blithely clicked Continue. Of course, all we ended up at was the main Grinnell page about sexual assault. A few links later, and we’re back on EthicsPoint. At that point, they wanted to give up. I suggested that they click Make a Report. They then followed similar steps to the ones I followed (although with fewer comments along the way). And yes, like me, they said At this point, I’d just give up and not report [5].

EthicsPoint does not seem to be intended to be supportive of victims/survivors. It feels to me like we’ve fallen victim to the traditional Grinnell approach to software, which I phrase either as If you’ve only got a hammer, then everything is a nail or One size fits all. That is, when we have a new need, instead of identifying the best software for that need, we just adapt an existing piece of software to that purpose.

I’m also really puzzled. I think very highly of our Title IX coordinator. She’s on my list of Grinnellians to write about. We work together all the time. I know she cares about supporting victims/survivors. So why do we have this?

Let’s see what other institutions do. A quick Web search for EthicsPoint report sexual assault brings up links to reporting mechanisms for the following institutions: Amherst, Grinnell [6], University of Maryland [7], Drake [8,9], Ball State [10], The Citadel [12,13], Santa Clara University, Saint Francis University, University of South Florida [14], and many more. We’re not alone in choosing EthicsPoint for reporting of sexual assault. I suppose that it’s a Best Practice.

But wait! It looks like Smith College says The EthicsPoint system should not be used for reporting sexual assault. To report an assault, please file a report using the college’s reporting form. So, not everyone who uses EthicsPoint uses EthicsPoint for sexual assault.

Let’s take a look at what Smith provides instead. Their Sexual Assault Resources page form is pretty good. Not only does it focus on issues relevant to sexual assault, it also asks about services the victim/survivor has been referred to or used. If I were filling it out, I might worry a bit that the submit button says Submit to the Office of Institutional Diversity rather than Submit Confidentially to the Title IX coordinator, but I don’t know how much that would deter most folks. I might also worry a bit that one place indicates that the Title IX coordinator is Sarah Harebo and another indicates that it’s Dwight Hamilton. Again, I don’t think that’s something that would deter most folks. (It might deter some of the CS majors I know, who would take that as a sign that information is not kept sufficiently private.) But it’s pretty good, and much better than EthicsPoint.

But what about Callisto, which is what started this whole essay? The Callisto Web site provides very little detail about what it’s like to really use Callisto. Let’s look at what’s at a school that uses Callisto. Pomona’s Callisto site looks pretty straightforward. There’s a Start Saving Details button near the top. I appreciate that the nearby text says

Callisto: Your process. Your decisions. Confidentially save details of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault. Process through what happened, then decide what to do.

Hmmm … it appears that you have to create an account. That’s a little bit scary. It looks like the email is optional, so that feels a bit safer. I also have to agree to terms of service and a privacy policy, both of which give Page not found errors. That doesn’t build my confidence much. I guess we’re at a dead end.

I did a bit more Web exploration, and found some of the questions and steps Callisto uses. Even more so than the Smith Survey, it’s very careful to be supportive of the victim/survivor while guiding them through some important questions. It looks like you don’t have to answer any question; most of the time, you can either click I’d rather not say or just ignore the question and go on to the next one. It looks like it provides useful information along the way, such as what evidence to preserve and how to preserve it. They do not assume a gender binary; most questions that ask about gender include man, woman, genderqueer, etc. And, from what I can tell, each question is also well designed. Here are some examples [15],

What happened, in your own words? Recalling what happened can be tough. Visit Support Services (link opens in a new window) for suggestions for self-care and options for speaking with someone.

Any other info to save about bystanders, potential witnesses, or people you may have told about what happened. For example: friends who were at the party, your roommate/friend who you talked to about it, people who may have seen you and the perpetrator together, people the perpetrator may have talked to about it, etc.

Would I encourage a student who I thought had been sexually assaulted to use Callisto, if we had it on campus and it was set up in this form? Yes. Would I encourage a student to use EthicsPoint? Yes, because I think people should report. However, while I could tell a student that Callisto would help them think carefully through the assault, I would have to warn the student that EthicsPoint would be a painful chore. Would I also bring that student to our Title IX officer? Definitely, and not just because I’m obligated to do so.

Does that mean I think we should ditch EthicsPoint for Callisto? No. I agree with our Title IX coordinator that we have some responsibility for ensuring long-term storage of reports. However, Callisto claims to be open source. In particular, the main Callisto page says

We are working to bring Callisto to every school in the country, and the code is open source to encourage further innovation in the space.

My quick glance at the link suggests that it’s the core data management part of Callisto, and not the full program (which would include the UI, the questions, and more). I’ll try to look further in the future.

I started this essay by saying that I couldn’t help ranting. In case you couldn’t tell, the rant is not about any person. Rather, it is that we rely on something that feels as unsupportive as EthicsPoint for our students to anonymously report sexual assault. I don’t care whether or not it’s a best practice; it doesn’t seem to be a good system.

So, what next? I’ll probably share this essay, or a variant of this essay, with our Title IX coordinator. I’ll probably hire a research student to set up an installation of Callisto, just so we can see whether we can run it independently and what it’s like to use and manage. I should talk to Jen Jacobsen on what research there is on real best practices - what practices do other institutions use, and what evidence is there that the practices do what they hope they would do (encourage victim/survivors to record their experiences and, eventually, to report). There’s almost certainly a really important HCI study there, but its design is complex and subtle enough that it should be left to the hands of professionals.

Finally, if you’ve been assaulted, please (a) get support; (b) record as much information as you comfortably can (even if you don’t plan to report now, you may eventually) [16]; (c) collect evidence, if you are comfortable doing so, (d) consider reporting the assault (anonymously, if necessary, even using EthicsPoint); and (e) consider speaking to our Title IX officer.

[1] Unfortunately, I am aware of students who have been sexually assaulted.

[2] These definitions appear to be Copyright 2016 NAVEX Global Inc. I believe their use in this essay constitutes fair use.

[3] All caps in original.

[4] I’ve talked to one of our Title IX team. It appears that, in spite of my criticisms, students do use EthicsPoint for reporting of sexual assault.

[5] I said something a little less polite. Same general concept, though.

[6] I assume Grinnell is near the top because I’m searching from near Grinnell.

[7] That page does not list sexual assault. A search of University of Maryland Report Sexual Assault brings up a separate page that seems focused on sexual harassment, including sexual assault. However that page also says PLEASE NOTE: Your name and email address are required.

[8] Drake is near Grinnell. I assume that puts it higher in the rankings.

[9] The Drake reporting page puts sexual assault on the first page. However, it does bring us to a form incredibly similar to Grinnell’s EthicsPoint page.

[10] Another one that doesn’t include sexual assault on the main EthicsPoint page. A search for Ball State report sexual assault shows me this page as the most likely place. However, it does not seem to provide a link to the EthicsPoint page. Interesting [11].

[11] A student tells me that Ball State seems to use Silent Witness.

[12] The Citadel also lists Chain of Command as a way of reporting sexual assault. Definitely a different culture.

[13] While sexual assault does not appear on the list of issue to report, sexual violence does.

[14] Another one that doesn’t seem to list sexual assault, even moving deeper into the hierarchy.

[15] I expect that these are copyright by Callisto or Pomona. However, given the lack of policies, it’s hard to tell. In any case, I believe my use in this essay constitutes fair use.

[16] If you know how to use encryption software, I would encourage you to encrypt the report too.

Version 1.1 of 2016-11-02.