Code with Courage
by Danielle Lopez
An alum is working to bring sexual-assault reporting into the 21st century.
“Just to be blunt, it didn’t happen to me,” Kelsey Gilmore-Innis, BA ’10, tells me over the phone from her desk in Portland. She’s taking a break from writing code for what could be the next step in the fight against sexual assault on university campuses. “I’m not a survivor, and I think that’s sometimes the story people want to hear. But it’s really important that this doesn’t fall entirely on survivors’ backs.”
It’s for this reason Gilmore-Innis became the chief technology officer at Sexual Health Innovations, a nonprofit that has created Project Callisto, an online college sexual assault reporting system. We’re talking about how the conversation surrounding sexual assault has changed in the few years since she graduated from UT, where 18.5 percent of women and 5 percent of men surveyed by the Association of American Universities in 2015 reported being victims of sexual assault.
“It’s definitely become more of an issue since I graduated,” she says, noting that she taught classes as a sexual health peer educator and received a minor in sexual education history. “And as someone who works in technology, it’s really important to me that we’re not just tackling the kinds of problems in our lives that are I wish food were delivered to my house, but that we’re tackling problems that run deeper.”
SHI works to create technology designed to advance sexual health and well-being. Aside from Callisto, SHI created So They Can Know, a website that allows users to anonymously inform partners of possible sexually transmitted diseases. The Google.org-funded website — which is named after a Greek myth about a nymph that the god Zeus tricked into having sex — launched at the University of San Francisco and Pomona College in August 2015. It was founded by SHI’s CEO, Jessica Ladd, after she was sexually assaulted as an undergraduate at Pomona just a few years ago.
“The idea for Callisto came from my own experience reporting my assault,” Ladd says. “I knew there had to be a more supportive way to allow survivors to seek resources, to help them understand the reporting options available, and, if they choose to, to report.”
Callisto, which works in tandem with a school’s Title IX office, is an alternative for sexual-assault survivors who don’t feel comfortable filing a report in person. (According to the same AAU report, only 25.5 percent of female victims of sexual assault at UT involving force or incapacitation reported the incident to authorities.) Using a school email address, the website allows users to securely and privately record their experience by answering a series of 16 questions. The site offers extensive information on how the user’s school and state process reports, what happens after the user submits a report, and who will be involved.
“Our site has been designed with a background of survivors and psychological and investigative experts to get the most important details down while trying to avoid re-traumatizing the survivor,” Gilmore-Innis says.
The website acts as a type of information escrow, allowing users to choose one of three options: store their timestamped record for later use, immediately submit their record to authorities for investigation, or select a “matching” option that notifies the school about the user’s perpetrator only if another victim reports an incident with the same person. Though a record is not anonymous once it is submitted, only the user has access to the information while it is being held, meaning SHI can’t access the record even if asked by a court of law.
In June, Tara DeMarco, BBA ’10, created a petition on change.org calling for Chancellor William McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, and Longhorn football head coach Charlie Strong to bring Callisto to UT. By the end of the month, she had garnered more than 1,500 signatures. DeMarco, who wrote an open letter about being sexually assaulted off-campus in 2013 on the website Burnt Orange Nation, found Callisto by chance. She says she thought it could be useful in preventing cases like at Baylor University, where football players Sam Ukwuachu and Shawn Oakman were indicted on sexual-assault charges, and a scathing report implicated several others.
“If there were a way for me to use it right now to see whether my attacker had ever done this to somebody else, I would,” says DeMarco, who adds that she wishes she could’ve used Callisto to record the assault. “I obviously wasn’t ready to tell anybody at the time, but I think if I had been able to save it, that would’ve been a comfort.”
Since the petition gained traction, McRaven and DeMarco have been in contact. DeMarco says he has read her letter, seen Ladd’s TED Talk, and expressed interest in adding an online reporting system, though not necessarily Callisto. Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, UT System’s executive director of media relations and external communications, said in an email that McRaven is most concerned with ensuring students’ privacy is protected under any platform the school might use.
Aside from privacy issues, Gilmore-Innis says people tend to be concerned that Callisto will lead to an increase in false reports. “We don’t think there are any reasons to believe Callisto will encourage false reports more than the already existing ability of students to report one,” she says, though an accurate rate of occurrence is hard to find. According to a 2009 report by the National Violence Research Center, research suggests false reporting for sexual assault is in the range of 2–8 percent.
August marked Callisto’s one-year anniversary at the University of San Francisco. USF’s interim-vice provost of student life Julie Orio says the school decided to use Callisto because it’s an additional resource that “meets students where they are: online.” Orio says Callisto is also beneficial to the school administration because it provides them with an annual report of anonymous statistical information like how many students in total reported a sexual assault, their gender, or their ages.
“It’s worked well,” Orio says. “It’s been received positively by our campus community. [SHI] is just great at really analyzing the program and looking for improvements.”
Gilmore-Innis says she would be excited to see Callisto at her alma mater. She says SHI’s long-term goal is to be on every campus in the country and then, maybe one day, other institutions like the workplace or the military.
“We need to do better,” she says. “We have an obligation to do better by the students who put their trust in a campus. [Callisto] is a huge first step in acknowledging how survivors need to be supported, and how we can protect our community.”
Sexual Health Innovations CTO Kelsey Gilmore-Innis. She is one of the creators of Project Callisto, an online campus sexual assault reporting system. Photo by Sexual Health Innovations.