Young women face the highest rates of dating violence and sexual assault and most often turn to friends for help, officials say. But while three-quarters of college students say it's important to intervene, more than half say they don't know how.
To provide them a new way, several federal government offices teamed up to address the issue through the Apps Against Abuse technology challenge last year. The winner was Circle of 6 , an online outfit with a particular interest in violence issues.
"We launched two weeks ago and we have 19,856 downloads," said Nancy Schwartzman, co-creator of the iPhone app. She is a filmmaker and executive director of The Line Campaign, an anti-violence endeavor.
Using the free app, people can choose six friends they trust to be in their circle. Among its functions, users can press a button, which sends a preprogrammed text message to their friends. For example, one choice sends a message that the person needs a safe way to get home, along with his or her location.
"A lot of this stuff is just rooted from people's personal stories and hearing from young people how having their friends at their fingertips ... would have been really helpful," said Schwartzman, who has toured college campuses talking to students and screening her film about sexual assault.
"Our youth today are really tuned into iPhones. Technology allows them to text, Twitter and Facebook. That's basically how they communicate," said Richard DeLaO, police chief at the Ventura County, Calif., Community College District. "So we have to take that technology and use it to our benefit."
At a recent conference for college police chiefs, DeLaO heard about another new program available to campuses. The software product would allow students and staff to use an app on their phones to signal they are in trouble, alerting campus police to their location.
Surveys show that one-fifth of female students -- 18 to 20 percent -- are raped or sexually assaulted during college, the National Institute of Justice reports.
Circle of 6 is targeted at college students, but can be used by anyone, according to its creators, Schwartzman and Deb Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Internet Sexuality Information Services.
The app also has two national rape and abuse hotlines preprogrammed, along with a third number that users can set up to quick-dial campus police or another local number. In addition, a resource button links users to information about abuse.
"There's so many positive outcomes we hope for. I think raising awareness that preventing sexual violence is a community effort is something I really want this app to do," Schwartzman said.
Sara Pressey, a student at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said she thinks the best way to help a friend is to be there. Go to parties in groups and have everyone look out for one another, she said.
Pressey, who is helping to organize a Take Back the Night event at CLU next week, thought the app sounded interesting.
"I haven't heard of it before, so I don't how well it would work," she said. "It might be a really good program."