Cal Poly and SLOPD: Victims of sexual assault should be your top concern, not abusers

Joe Tarica
Joe Tarica

We have a real problem with how we treat victims of sexual assault, and the investigative processes at Cal Poly and the San Luis Obispo Police Department aren’t helping.

In a year littered with the mouldering carcasses of big men who all but made careers of harassing women, our quiet little corner of the world hasn’t emerged unscathed by the issue.

Thankfully, as far as we know, we don’t as yet have in our midst any Harvey Weinsteins or Bill O’Reillys, who according to a New York Times story on Saturday has paid out $45 million to settle at least six sexual harassment cases yet still somehow manages to claim with a straight face that it’s all just a political hit job.

No-spin zone? He’s spinning like a top.

Despite those recent high-profile cases, we’re not doing nearly enough to acknowledge the real concerns many women have, in the workplace, at school, anywhere.

If you don’t believe this, you probably haven’t been on Facebook or Twitter this week when women all over the world joined in the viral #MeToo campaign, lending their voices to the masses who’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault at some point in their lives.

It was surprising to see the sheer volume of people joining the chorus of protest, and you should know that even those numbers are not a true representation of the actual scope of abuse, which spans age, culture and geography. While lots of people lent their voices to this outcry, many others still chose to remain silent.

It’s safe to say you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of impolite-bordering-on-criminal attention, whether it’s a carelessly slung catcall, rape or something in between.

With that in mind, it’s all the more discouraging to read about two recent local cases.

In the first, a San Luis Obispo police sergeant got into hot water when he was asked by New Times to comment on a flurry of sexual assault reports to start the year at Cal Poly.

“We get a ton of young people that come into town that have never really consumed alcohol before and now they’re experimenting,” Sgt. Chad Pfarr, the city’s lead investigator, told New Times. “Suddenly, they have too much and they black out and the automatic assumption is, ‘I was roofied and sexually assaulted.’ More times than not, that’s not the case.”

It gets worse.

He went on to add that students often “feel like they got sexually assaulted because they blacked out” when really, he said, “it was just something that was conjured up.”

Yeah, he said they conjured it up. Really.

I’m sure Pfarr is a decent guy, but in the words of Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption”: “How can you be so obtuse?”

Law enforcement is your career. You work with victims. Yet it sounds like your default approach is disbelief.

It’s just that kind of attitude that keeps women from reporting these crimes. Why should they exacerbate their trauma by making a case if there’s an excellent chance no one will take them seriously and they will be the ones put up for examination?

That’s exactly what happened to Melissa Giddens, the Cal Poly graduate profiled in Andrew Sheeler’s story.

She went public with her case after the university’s Title IX office dismissed her complaint of sexual assault by a fellow student.

Giddens believes she was drugged at a party before waking up the next morning with the guy fondling her in her bed.

“I came to them, told them straight up (that) I did not consent to this activity. And they just didn’t acknowledge that it even happened,” she said of the ensuing Title IX investigation.

“It felt like they automatically sided with him, and then it was like I was on trial,” Giddens said.

By going through the university, Giddens’ case became an administrative matter rather than a criminal one, subject to a secretive process without lawyers or rules of evidence, one that swings based on a preponderance of evidence as determined by the investigator.

This process has been a disgrace for a long time all across the country. And yet it’s still in use, often yielding the result where complaints are tossed out, rapists walk and victims are left in shambles.

Just look at the numbers. In the last two years, Cal Poly’s Title IX office has received 140 complaints of sexual misconduct, domestic violence and stalking. Of those 140, they investigated 44, and of those 44, they handed down sanctions in only 19 cases.

Add it up and it means that of the women who had the courage to come forward, less than 15 percent reached what they might possibly feel is a suitable result. But most probably didn’t even feel that, because a lot of the results are nothing more than slaps on the wrist.

Barely 4 percent resulted in the most severe action: the expulsion of the offending student. That’s pathetic.

Meanwhile, the situation could get even worse, if the Trump administration has anything to say. Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education is looking to raise the burden of proof in these cases and give further protection to assailants.

It’s just one more layer in a prehistoric strata of shame that has long buried concern for victims under coddling for their abusers.

This must stop. And with the #MeToo momentum, there’s no better time to start the stopping than right now.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica

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