Top 10 Stories of 2011: No. 6 — Rape allegations spur talk at Cal Poly

Editor’s note: This is No. 6 of The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2011 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day we will count down to the top story of the year.

The sign on the window of a Cal Poly dorm warned students on campus with the sober headline in red ink of “Sexual Assault — Rape.”

It was the third such report on or around campus within nine days during May, and campus officials were required to inform students.

The development was unusual for a university with a strong reputation for academics and a heightened focus on responsible behavior.

Freshman Carson Starkey died from alcohol-related poisoning at a fraternity hazing in 2008, sparking discussions among students and campus officials about personal safety and accountability.

After the reported sexual assaults in May, there has been sharp debate about how to address the issue, and how alcohol might have played a role.

Police reported that each of the purported victims was unconscious and drunk when the alleged assaults occurred.

With speculation circulating about the details, advocates for rape victims implored “don’t blame the victim” in campus meetings and letters to the editor to local newspapers.

They noted that women who are drunk or who are dressed provocatively aren’t inviting sexual assault.

But concern for the women was also tempered by caution about presuming guilt until investigations were completed.

In the end, police didn’t arrest anybody in the two reported on-campus incidents.

A third incident reported at the off-campus fraternity house, Sigma Phi Epsilon, resulted in an arrest of a student.

But the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office didn’t file charges, citing insufficient evidence, while still noting that the purported victim shouldn’t be disbelieved, prosecutors said.

University Police Department Chief Bill Watton said awareness continues to be a prime concern on campus for his agency and for university officials who work with new students and sororities and fraternities.

“Every single assault we’ve investigated (recently) involved alcohol,” Watton said. “And a lot of the incidents we look into do. The training and safety presentations we do often surround alcohol.”

Watton said police stepped up their presentations and awareness campaigns during the summer orientation and Week of Welcome programs this year, talking to students about topics such as alcohol and sexual assault prevention.

Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting, coordinator of Cal Poly’s orientation programs, said Starkey’s parents’ new nonprofit group, Aware Awake Alive, also offers a host of activities, resources and information for students about alcohol awareness.

Kaiwi-Lenting also encourages students to feel comfortable reporting sexual assault whether it’s to police or at an on-campus organization that is designed to help.

She said the Sexual Assault-Free Environment Resource center in the University Union has provided a helpful outlet to students who may want to express the effects of sexual assault on their lives.

The series previously

No. 7 — Companies break ground on two solar farms in the county.

No. 8 — Attacks on staff at Atascadero State Hospital lead the state toward reforms.

No. 9 — Two men are accused of kidnapping and torturing another man in a California Valley trailer.

No. 10 — Ian Parkinson becomes sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.

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