Once again coverage of rape and sexual assault has devolved into a debate over numbers. Discussions of new studies that claim to disprove previous statistics, disagreements about the size of the respondent pool or other aspects of research methodology, the veracity of a particular incident and, of course, the old saw that victims are simply ‘making it up’ crowd the news media.

And no matter how many times researchers explain that many of these comparisons are of the apples-to-oranges variety — that studies vary in the ways they define rape, in what they consider instances of sexual assault, that even relatively small samples can give important clues about attitudes, we continue on the numbers track. Too often prevalence becomes the central issue. The crime itself takes a back seat. As Jennifer Rothchild did here at Girl w/Pen! last month, activists and researchers repeatedly point out that even one rape is one rape too many. These voices seem lost in the news swirl. For many it is easier to debate the extent of the problem than hunker down and take concrete measures to address it. This has been particularly true on many university campuses. A year ago President Obama announced an initiative to address sexual assault on college campuses and by October 2014 over 80 institutions of higher education were under investigation for possible violations of Title IX related to sexual assaults.

The stories of rape victims who have reported their attackers to college authorities and the lack serious consequences these perpetrators faced are astounding. Such responses further victimize the young women–and men–brave enough to speak up. Many survivors leave school rather than run the risk of encountering their rapists on campus. The lesson is obvious. Speaking up is dangerous. Think carefully before you jump from the proverbial fire into the frying pan. It is not surprising that the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that while sexual assault is a serious problem for all women between the ages of 18 and 24, young women attending institutions of higher education are less likely to report sexual assaults than those not in college.

Debates on the prevalence of sexual assault help most when they lead to better data collection efforts. This week I had an opportunity to talk with Jessica Ladd, the founder of Sexual Health Innovations, about procedures to address sexual assaults on campuses. Sexual Health Innovations develops technology to advance sexual health and wellbeing in the US. Their latest effort, Callisto, recently received seed funding from the Google Impact Awards program. Callisto is designed to provide a more transparent, empowering and confidential reporting mechanism for college sexual assault survivors. The website states:

“Callisto allows sexual assault survivors to complete an incident report online, receive a clear explanation of their reporting options, and then either directly submit the report to their chosen authority or save it as a time-stamped record. Survivors saving a record can log back in at any time to officially report their assault or can choose to have their report automatically submitted to the authorities if someone else reports the same assailant.”

The development of Callisto began by listening to the voices of those most involved and affected. The system is based on interviews, focus groups, and surveys with over 50 survivors of campus sexual assaults. Respondents shared their perspectives and the difficulties they experienced in reporting rape. Ladd noted that a critical component of addressing sexual assault adequately is enabling survivors to report their experiences in a timely manner, while also giving them more control and choice in the decision to report as well as in the timing of their reporting. Given the many possible consequences involved in reporting and the traumatic nature of the crime, it is not always a decision that can be made quickly. At the same time, investigators may see waiting to report as a sign of doubt concerning the seriousness and/or the facts of the incident.

A time-stamped, third party sexual assault reporting system such as Callisto provides a confidential record of the attack. Such a report is less likely to be dismissed as a second thought or a reinterpretation of events even if the decision to report is made weeks later. Furthermore, in order for colleges and universities to develop effective policies on sexual assault they must understand the problems on their own campuses. Collecting campus specific information is key.

Better data can foster more effective procedures, but neither data nor policies can ensure redress and justice for students. Ladd points out that Callisto is an aid in the first two steps of what she sees as a five-step process:

  1. Recording and preserving evidence
  2. Reporting the assault
  3. Investigating the incident reported
  4. Adjudicating the case
  5. And finally, reaching a resolution.

Ideally every educational institution would have an advocate available for sexual assault survivors to turn to for confidential information, advice and support. But this advocate would not be responsible for investigating a rape when and if it is reported. Effective support and advocacy require different skills and entail different responsibilities than those of investigation or adjudication. Investigations should be thorough and professional; evidence needs to be considered carefully by administrators who grasp the seriousness of the crime and who are without personal ties to the survivor or the accused. Furthermore, once an investigation is undertaken, a different university staff member may be needed to advise the accused.

These procedures are needed to ensure justice for every student. Institutionalizing them may be complicated. Justice is seldom as simple as we’d like it to be. But fair and just treatment is the only way to assure survivors they will be heard and heeded. The only way to prevent attackers from assuming they will ‘get away’ with no more than a slap on the wrist. Once in place, these five steps can go a long way toward making our nation’s campuses safer for all students.