Cal Poly forum on 'St. Fratty's Day' airs student, resident complaints

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong talks to students, faculty and city residents at a forum Thursday about last weekend's 'St. Fratty's Day' party and roof collapse that injured several students.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong talks to students, faculty and city residents at a forum Thursday about last weekend's 'St. Fratty's Day' party and roof collapse that injured several students. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In a wide-ranging and spirited forum Thursday at Cal Poly, the unifying sentiment among the 400 attendees was recognition that more people could have been seriously injured or even killed during a boisterous party early Saturday when a garage roof collapsed under the weight of dozens of students.

But suggestions on how to move forward as a campus community to prevent future incidents of reckless behavior — as well as how to maintain Cal Poly’s reputation — were divided.

The forum was held in the aftermath of Saturday’s “St. Fratty’s Day” festivities that drew about 3,000 people to the Hathway Avenue neighborhood near campus, and resulted in injuries to at least eight people who were on the roof when it gave way shortly at 6:21 a.m.

“I can’t defend what happened this weekend,” said Joi Sullivan, Cal Poly’s Associated Students Inc. student body president. “I’m extremely grateful and relieved because so easily we could have lost, even one person, of this community. We also could have lost 20.”

Sullivan urged her fellow classmates to take it upon themselves to be more responsible and caring, so “we can still have fun and enjoy a real college experience” without disrupting neighborhoods and putting lives at risk.

Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong moderated the forum, which was attended by students, neighborhood residents, faculty and administrators. He opened by saying that several issues have weighed on him about the incident, including the early-morning timing, safety concerns, and illegal activities at the party.

Armstrong said university officials have reviewed social media posts about Saturday’s event and noticed use of drugs and other punishable behavior.

He said the key moving forward will be to reach common ground among campus groups about “how we can do things better.”

“Cal Poly students are hard-working, intelligent, smart,” Armstrong said.

“If we were going to go out this afternoon to try to get 12 of you to climb up on a rickety garage, you’d say ‘Are you nuts? I’m a structural engineer. I don’t think that works.’ There’s this thing about bystander intervention that didn’t work and the intelligence of a group that didn’t work.”

Several students offered both complaints and suggestions during the forum.

Those included the need for more campus events for students on weekends, including concerts and activities on Friday and Saturday nights.

“I’d like to see events after about 6 o’clock at night and more reasons to come on campus,” said Tate Hayes, a freshman aerospace engineering major. “It will be a safe environment and a place for students to come and have fun.”

Some criticized Cal Poly’s ongoing Greek system social probation. The university imposed the probation in January, banning all Greek life social events in response to reports of three sexual assaults at fraternity parties during this school year and extreme intoxication. Some students said Thursday that the ban encouraged the large Saturday gathering because of a lack of smaller weekend fraternity parties scattered around the community.

“If you ask a lot of students about what went wrong, they’ll say the administration is not allowing them to have fun,” a student who identified himself as a third-year fraternity member said. “If every fraternity had been allowed to have a party last weekend, which would have been registered (with the university), would this have happened?” One student said she knew some went to the Hathway gathering because “girls who like to dress up and go to a party” haven’t had that chance under the probation.

A student who has complained to a local realty office about the conditions of his rental urged the university to do more to raise the standard of living quarters many students have to settle for in neighborhoods around the campus.

“The realty agency told me if you don’t renew the lease, somebody else will take your place,” the student said. “…What is the university doing to help with this? We don’t want to live in terrible conditions, but we don’t have a choice.” Agribusiness major Jack Milstead said he grew up in San Luis Obispo County. He urged classmates not to invite out-of-towners through social media to come to local parties because they don’t respect the community as much as Cal Poly students do.

“I saw on Yik Yak that people were going off about the party at the Pink House (the Hathway Avenue residence),” Milstead said. “People were getting public access to that information from Santa Barbara and other places that they could all come to party here. We don’t want to turn this community into another Isla Vista,” the neighborhood adjacent to UCSB.

Some city residents urged students to respect their neighborhoods and each other, and gave vivid descriptions of the impact student partying has had on their streets, including students littering plastic cups, vomiting on lawns and holding loud late-night parties.

“One neighbor who complained about the noise at a party got hit in the head with a chunk of cement and suffered a concussion from it,” one resident said. “The questions students should ask of themselves are: ‘How do you treat each other?’ “How do you want to be treated?’ ‘Do you want to hang around with people that are so drunk you have to pick them up off the ground?’ There should be a level of respect and compassion.”

Cal Poly is still investigating whether a fraternity was involved with coordinating the “St. Fratty’s Day” partying, which would be a violation of the temporary social probation.

Armstrong reminded students that the social probation is still in place, in part because Greek leaders are working to reach a consensus on a plan to address the reckless behavior that has taken place throughout the year. Once a plan is in place, the probation will be lifted, he said.

He encouraged students to take an active role in shaping the university’s future, including participating in discussions and committees on housing and event planning, which would impact the campus for decades to come.

Several speakers said the forum was productive and called for further dialogue among campus groups and administrators.

Sullivan said she hoped another forum would be held with tangible solutions to some of the problems and frustrations expressed Thursday.

“We shouldn’t be pointing fingers,” Sullivan said. “We need to work together.”

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