Cal Poly’s president and other campus leaders say a student culture that might have contributed to three alleged rapes within a nine-day period this month needs to change.
President Jeffrey Armstrong said Tuesday that he’s “deeply distressed” by the report of a third sexual assault this month, though he’s glad the women felt safe enough to report the incidents.
“We need to take a hard look at sexual violence, alcohol and drug use,” Armstrong said. “These are disturbing issues, and we’ve formed a task force that could have actions and recommendations as early as this week.”
Armstrong also said people should not rush to judgment about what happened in each of the reported incidents because facts are still being gathered. Cal Poly and police officials also aren’t saying what investigations have uncovered so far.
The first of the alleged assaults this month happened May 7 at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house and led to the arrest of 23-year-old Cal Poly student Joseph Trupiano.
Two additional assaults were reported Thursday and Sunday at the Poly Canyon Village dormitories; no arrests have been made, though suspects have been identified.
Police say in each case this month, the women were unconscious and intoxicated from alcohol at the time of the alleged assaults.
Cal Poly professor Christina Firpo, who has worked closely with community sexual assault prevention programs, emphasizes that it’s important the victim of an alleged rape should not be blamed because of intoxication.
“Rapists often use alcohol as a tool,” Firpo said. “I think the proper way to look at it is that alcohol facilitates rape.”
Cal Poly’s Academic Senate Chairwoman Rachel Fernflores — who’s on the task force looking into rape prevention along with student-body President Sarah Storelli and Vice President of Student Affairs Cornel Morton — said the link between binge drinking and sexual violence needs close examination.
Fernflores said the task force likely will have short-term recommendations but preventing sexual violence is a constant challenge and will require a multiyear effort.
“We need the proper programs and resources in place,” Fernflores said. “As a campus, we haven’t talked about these issues enough.”
Armstrong said programs already exist, including Cal Poly’s SAFER organization that does outreach on campus about sexual assault prevention, and the university holds presentations at housing and orientation events — but Cal Poly needs to build on these programs.
Armstrong emphasized that underage drinking is a key cultural problem, noting that people saw others drinking to excess at the May 7 fraternity house party and “did nothing to keep each other safe.”
“A large number of Cal Poly students attended the party; many drank to reckless excess, and many were under age,” Armstrong said.
The Cal Poly president clarified Monday that in his Friday statement, he didn’t mean to imply that people at the party witnessed an assault and did nothing.
The University Police Department reported five sex-related crimes in 2007 and none in 2008 and 2009, according to the latest statistics available under the federal Clery Act, which requires release of crime statistics at public college campuses.
But those figures don’t include incidents that go unreported, and SAFER has referred as many as 20 sex crime victims in a year to services that can help them, student coordinators say.
A party school?
Students on campus say anyone looking to find parties have options available – typically from Thursday through Sunday.
Freshman agriculture systems management major Hadyn Schatz said Cal Poly isn’t as big of a party school as other campuses such as Chico State or San Diego State, which he believes is because of its academic rigor. But it has a “closet party scene” that includes the residence halls, he said.
Schatz also said fraternities and homes in the Hathway Avenue area off-campus are a common place to party.
“People who want to drink seem to find a way to do it,” Schatz said.
Storelli, the student body president, also said she’s noticed a rise of pictures and comments on Facebook and other social media about being passed out from alcohol intoxication.
“I definitely think that people talking about someone blacking out or showing a photo has ramped up in recent years,” Storelli said.
The university police chief and students said Poly Canyon Village is typically not a big party location.
“We really don’t have a lot of calls for response out there,” Cal Poly police Chief William Watton said.
The parties that campus police have seen at Poly Canyon Village involve small numbers of people in suites, and the common areas are pretty carefully observed by resident assistants who monitor behavior, Watton added.
But wherever a party occurs, people need to step in to stop a potential assault, said Cal Poly psychology professor Shawn Burn, who has been a consultant to the SAFER program.
“I want to see these bystanders intervene to stop sexual assaults before they happen,” Burn said. “Most men never sexually assault anyone, but these men are good at spotting the types of men that would.”