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For immediate release (October 6, 2017) Media Contact: Judy Abelman Email: Phone: 440.725.8861...

Entrepreneur Penny Smith develops online intervention program to respond to sexual assault

By Amanda Bates  |  Photo by Doug Khrenovsky

Launching a business of any kind takes courage. Imagine the fearlessness required to create and market a solution that targets rape, when most people avoid discussing
the topic altogether

Penny Smith’s calling materialized eight years ago, when she served as the assistant provost at Kentucky State University. As part of the student conduct committee, she adjudicated on cases of sexual assault. The first-hand stories she heard forced her to confront the painful memory of being raped as a college student several years earlier by a starting member of her school’s football team.

“I did not seek medical attention or report it because I didn’t think anyone would believe [he] would do that to me,” Smith says. “I had pretty much buried that experience from my life until I heard others’ stories dealing with the same experience.”

Now the executive director for academic services at Northeast Ohio Medical University, Smith has harnessed the negative and positive experiences from her time in higher education and used them to found her own company. Alegria Technologies provides technology solutions to higher education, K-12 education, workforce development, and nonprofit organizations.

One of Alegria’s products is Keys to Coping, a web-based tool that offers any student who has experienced sexual assault a platform on which to privately compile information. The details can be shared with healthcare providers, university administrators or law enforcement to bring wellness, closure, and justice to the victim — particularly those at colleges and universities, where increasing rates of reported sexual assault among female students continues to cause concern.

Smith created the software, knowing that the ability to cope is critical for the long-term mental, physical, and emotional health of sexual assault victims. She also recognized that, while law enforcement and healthcare have adapted to the digital revolution, there was not a comprehensive, web-based solution that actually addressed all of the issues that emerge in cases of sexual violence.

Keys to Coping allows victims of sexual assault and rape to log in from the privacy of their own computers to complete police and medical reports. The modules that each student completes include Key to Health, Key to Awareness, Key to Education, and Key to Legal Action.

Similar products are present, and, like Alegria’s, they are in the pilot phase. However, according to Smith, they don’t cover each aspect and phase of the coping process.

“It addresses the other areas of a victim’s life that need attention but that the victim may not even consider or realize,” Smith says.

Through Keys to Coping, students can record and track injuries and symptoms, request course schedule changes and new living accommodations, and learn about on-campus services available to them, such as counseling and legal assistance.

They can also compile data to be used in police reports and hearings, which will help to form stronger partnerships between schools, law enforcement and legal entities.

For individual victims, the goal of Keys to Coping is to keep them from abandoning their futures in the aftermath of trauma. Smith also wants to make sure the system is effective for reporting purposes.

This was a crucial balance for her to strike. “I couldn’t really leave my college administrator hat behind, but I’m also a survivor,” she says. “This is a tool that doesn’t just emphasize compliance but care and concern for the victim.”

The platform has been introduced at two beta test sites, with a third one in the works. Smith’s sales focus right now is on college campuses, but in a few years she’d like to expand the usage to law enforcement and healthcare institutions.

One of her next hurdles will be to build a team that is as knowledgeable and passionate about helping victims as she is. So far, it’s been a solo act for Smith. “I’ve fleshed out the type of person and number of people I need initially. It’s just a matter of finding them,” she says.

Although Smith is a pioneer of this new form of electronic reporting, it’s still largely an untested concept, and one that can make many uncomfortable.

However, administrators in higher education are hearing about the numbers. Less than 20 percent of rapes are reported to authorities, and less than 20 percent of victims seek medical evaluation.

“People don’t want to talk about it or hear about it, and that’s what I’ve faced,” Smith says. “If I can get over that hump, it’ll be something as familiar as a blackboard in college institutions.”

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