The first sexual assault reported to campus police during the fall semester at Sacramento State happened on the afternoon of Sept. 13.
A female student was studying on a bench when a man sat down and tried to hug her, briefly groping her through her clothes, The Sacramento Bee reported.
A month later, a female student reported being raped by an acquaintance at a residence hall.
By December — close to the end of the fall semester — a total of seven sexual offenses had been reported on a university campus of 29,000 students that normally falls on the low end of reported sexual assaults.
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The peak in reports sparked a full-fledged university response. Campus police doubled the number of nighttime patrol officers, community service officers driving golf carts offered students rides to their vehicles, and student groups launched into action.
In some ways, what happened 300 miles north from San Luis Obispo is similar to what has happened recently at Cal Poly: several rapes reported within a short time period, prompting a quick campus response. A task force formed by Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong has met several times to start setting short- and long-term goals.
Victim advocates contacted in various university towns praised Cal Poly’s quick response. But they also stressed the importance of ongoing education, consistently reassessing programs and understanding that some changes may take several years to be instituted on campus.
Of course, Cal Poly’s situation, with a small community centered on its university, is unique, and it can’t easily be compared to other universities, including Sacramento State. Cal Poly has fewer students, and more of them — about 6,000 — live on campus, compared with the 1,500 students living in campus dormitories at Sacramento State.
But programs in place there and elsewhere may be useful as the Cal Poly task force assesses programs and searches for better outreach efforts to students.
The task force plans to look at best practices at other universities, said Rachel Fernflores, chairwoman of Cal Poly’s Academic Senate, though she declined to state which universities the group might contact, saying there is no one university that is “the” university to emulate.
Fernflores added she believes the university needs to find ways to engage students more proactively.
“We want our students to care about each other, to look out for each other and also to look out for people who aren’t students at Cal Poly,” Fernflores said. “I don’t mean to imply that they don’t care about each other. I think they don’t know what to do. And they need to know what to do.”
One of the concerns Armstrong raised was that students at a fraternity house party at which a college-age student reported she was raped May 7 “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 underage,” Armstrong said in a statement.
Engaging bystanders is key to preventing sexual violence, according to several victim advocates. Chico State made “bystander intervention” the focus of its campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April.
Santa Clara University runs a men’s outreach program to educate men on ways to prevent sexual assault. Called “One in Four,” it is named after the disturbing statistic that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in every four college-age women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape.
UC Santa Cruz received a positive mention in a 2005 National Institute of Justice report for a program emphasizing the bystander’s role in violence prevention, in part by using a “playbook” of strategies men can use to interrupt their peers when they believe they may be edging toward criminal behavior.
“It’s all about personal responsibility,” said Joelle Gomez, executive director of the San Joaquin Women’s Center. She has been working to partner with University of the Pacific, a private university in Stockton, to improve its judicial review process of sexual assaults.
“The reality is college students are going to socialize, go to parties, and alcohol will more than likely be involved,” she said. “What’s important ... is when you see something that isn’t right, you need to get involved, to act.”
After the seven sexual offenses were reported at Sacramento State, Jessica Heskin, the university’s violent and sexual assault support services coordinator, quickly planned a self-defense workshop. It drew 75 students, faculty and staff.
In February, after a new semester was under way, student groups got together to encourage 700 students to participate in a national program by signing a “One Student” pledge to help end sexual violence by becoming part of the solution.
The pledge lists several ways to do so: by making sure friends understand that a person cannot consent to sex if he or she is intoxicated, and by intervening if someone is taking advantage of an intoxicated person.
“The bottom line is we are a community, and this issue of sexual violence affects every one of us,” Heskin said. “We needed to show a public campaign that ‘This is our campus, this is our community, and we need to be socially active against this issue.’ ”
In general, Sacramento State has several programs to raise awareness of the university’s policy on sexual assault, she said. All new and transfer students are required to take an online tutorial, part of which deals with the school’s sexual misconduct policy.
During an orientation for new and transfer students, all are instructed to take out their cellphones and program in the campus police phone number.
And Heskin herself is a full-time credentialed victim advocate on the university’s staff. She is on-call 24 hours a day for victims of domestic violence, hate crimes and stalking.
Heskin and Gomez said they were encouraged that the sexual assaults were reported, because according to an often-cited U.S. Department of Justice report published in 2000, fewer than 5 percent of attempted or completed rapes were reported to law enforcement officials. In two-thirds of the cases, however, the victim told another person about the incident, most often a friend.
The report also found that during any given academic year, 2.8 percent of women — or one in 36 — will be raped or experience an attempted rape.
The Cal Poly task force has met several times to discuss what can be done before the end of the spring quarter, just three weeks away.
Fernflores said the task force plans to hold three “retreats” with different groups on campus over the next three weeks. Those groups include service providers, including counselors, university police and the SAFER program (Cal Poly’s sexual assault resource and prevention program); student leaders including fraternity and sorority representatives; and faculty members.
Over the summer, the task force will reach out to the community for input. By the end of the summer, the task force’s goal is to develop a list of short- and long-term recommendations for Armstrong.
“We need to find really effective ways of helping the students become know-ledgeable about how they can care for each other in some of the situations they’re finding themselves in,” she said.
One short-term plan was already put into place last week: At 4:59 p.m. Thursday, an email was sent out to all Cal Poly students reminding them of ways they can send an anonymous alert to police via text or email.
The email, signed by Cal Poly Vice President of Student Affairs Cornel Morton, began by stating, “Your safety is our No. 1 concern.”The email ended with a plea: “Please look out for each other and ask for help if there is trouble.”
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.