Queen’s students can document sexual violence using VESTA

Website and mobile app offers resources and support

The platform is for any students who witnessed or experienced sexual violence.
This article discusses sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424.
Survivors can privately document their experiences, access resources, or report to authorities through Queen’s new partnership with VESTA.
The Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Services (SVPRS) at Queen’s launched the service through its website on Oct. 13.
VESTA Social Innovation Technologies provides a website and mobile app for students to document their experiences of sexual violence—with options to privately save what they have written, report it to the police, or get in touch with support.
“I’m all for awareness and education. I think we need to build in some accountability for real change and systemic change to occur,” VESTA CEO and Founder Lucrezia Spagnolo said in an interview with The Journal. 
Spagnolo was shocked by the prevalence of rape culture and sexual assault in Western society, after hearing about the Bill Cosby and Brock Turner cases.
“I thought somebody has to do something, and then I thought, why not me?” Spagnolo said.
The company was launched in the Kingston area in 2021. 
Research from Canada, the UK and Australia informed the development process, as well as partnerships with UBC to conduct peer-reviewed academic research and focus groups.
According to Spagnolo, she wanted the focus to be on the needs of survivors.
There are various challenges the organizations offering support to survivors face. 
Spagnolo said the company used a 360-degree view when creating the technology, to ensure they address many aspects of the sexual violence response—with victim services and the justice system in mind.
“We work in the space where gender-based violence work meets technology, and access to justice,” she said. “[VESTA] has something that’s practical and tactical.”
Over 70 per cent of Canadian students have experienced or witnessed unwanted sexual behavior. Less than six per cent of cases are reported, according to Spagnolo. 
The company’s partnership with 211 Ontario means students can find regional resources or reach University resources. Users can also reach crisis line through the application.
Users also have the option to disclose information to the University or report an experience to the police. VESTA documents experiences using a “trauma-informed” question and answer format, Spagnolo said. The record can be saved anonymously or sent immediately to authorities.
“Our goal is to make it less complicated for survivors to understand their options and next steps. We want to make that whole process life’s traumatizing and reduce victim blaming [and] if possible, increase accountability,” she said.
To support the investigative process, conversations with Crown prosecutors and the police informed the platform from a forensic perspective.
“If charges are made, and if they go down that path, and they may find themselves at trial, that this could be a supportive documents,” Spagnolo said.
The application can be used as documentation for later action and accessed confidentially initially—without starting a formal process.
“You can access resources, on your own time, at your own pace.”
VESTA is already integrated into Kingston’s sexual violence response—through the Sexual Assault Center of Kingston and the Kingston Police Services. 
“It felt like a good fit for [Queen’s] community and our students, in addition to being a really great platform,” Barbara Lotan, Queen’s sexual violence prevention and response coordinator, said in an interview with The Journal. 
Lotan said the partnership made sense from a collaborative perspective.
Students can still contact Lotan to arrange an appointment if they would like to speak. VESTA is just another tool for students to use—especially if they’re “not sure” about initiating a conversation, Lotan said.
Fitting into an existing “suite” of current strategies, VESTA can be used for support and prevention. Lotan said information gathered through the app will be used to build programming about how the University can support students.
“My goal is that we’re going to be able to collect some really important information from students about what their experiences are,” she said. 
The information users provide to VESTA will determine the degree of anonymity provided by the platform, with details outlined on their website.

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