It's time to 'hold the fire' to Cal Poly, #MeToo town hall organizers say

The Cal Poly hall fell silent as the woman stood up to speak.

She told the crowd how she was sexually assaulted, how her assailant escaped justice thanks to,she believes, disinterested university and police investigators, how the trauma of her assault shattered her life.

Then, after the audience applauded her bravery, the woman sat down and another stood up to speak. And another. And another.

One woman spoke of a time she learned that a man on campus was targeting female virgins, putting her in fear for her safety. Another woman said she was raped more than a decade ago, but the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the assault "ruined everything" in her life.

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Some spoke in person, others through letters read by organizers of the town-hall style event Wednesday night.

Time's Up Cal Poly, the group behind the #MeToo town hall at Philips Hall in the Performing Arts Center, said — first and foremost — they want university President Jeffrey Armstrong to acknowledge "the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment on our campus," according to a list of demands circulated at the event.

Organizers estimated that 120 people attended, filling the hall to about two-thirds of its capacity.

The event opened with a brief video — featuring Cal Poly students being interviewed about Title IX and also survivors telling their stories — followed by a panel discussion. Six panelists made up of both students and members of sexual assault survivor advocacy groups RISE and Cal Poly Safer took prepared questions asked by a moderator.

Many panelists were skeptical of Cal Poly's handling of Title IX investigations, something university spokesman Matt Lazier has said "is held up as the example of how to do it right."

Student Kelsey Zazanis said that "deep down," Cal Poly didn't want to address the university's rape culture.

Lazier wrote in an email statement in response to the event that the "university administration believes that the occurrence of any sexual misconduct on campus must be addressed, and the university works diligently through a variety of investigative and support programs to address any and all reports received, as appropriately and thoroughly as possible."

Cal Poly wasn't the only entity to draw speakers' ire Wednesday.

Many criticized the San Luis Obispo Police Department's handling of sexual assault investigations in reference to Detective Chad Pfarr telling the SLO New Times that some sexual assault victims "conjured up" their rape after drinking. The department announced an investigation into Pfarr's remarks but has yet to release its findings.

Zazanis said that Cal Poly focuses so much on alcohol as a "risk factor" in sexual assault that it neglects other "risk factors," such as campus Greek life.

"(Fraternities are) bringing our campus a lot of money," she said.

Besides acknowledging there's a problem and cracking down on fraternities, organizers listed a number of other goals they hope to achieve:

The establishment of a legal fund for sexual assault survivors;

Long-term and free-of-charge mental health care for survivors;

The reinstatement of University Police Department campus escorts up to 1 mile off campus;

More money and resources allocated to Cal Poly Safer and the removal of "all perpetrators of sexual assault" from both campus housing and the campus entirely.

Cal Poly Dean of Students Kathleen McMahon, attending the talk on behalf of the university, addressed the crowd at the end of the evening.

"Thank you for organizing this event. It's so encouraging," she said.

McMahon said the university is taking steps to improve its response to sexual assaults, including securing federal grant money to study the subject and funding another staff position at Cal Poly Safer.

"I just really want you to know we hear your voices," she said. "I'm in it with you."

Organizers said Wednesday's event, designed to take advantage of the momentum generated by the international #MeToo conversation, was just the beginning.

Mick Bruckner, who filed a Title IX complaint in 2016 alleging discrimination by one of his professors, put it bluntly: "We need to hold the fire to the administration's asses," he said.

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