Anna Hörnell and Sean McMinn
Special to Mustang News
With the California Department of Justice reporting 133 rapes during the past five years in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly might seem like a safe haven: Only three sexual assaults were listed on annual security reports released by Cal Poly during that same time.
But a seven-month investigation by Mustang News found that Cal Poly did not list a handful of reported rapes in its crime statistics in recent years, including a 2011 incident that police now acknowledge should have been disclosed.
University documents obtained through the California Public Records Act included reports of five sexual assaults allegedly occurring on campus or on university-affiliated property that did not appear in the Campus Security Report, which is mandated by the federal Clery Act. The assaults were reported to University Housing staff or police between November 2010 and May 2012.
When asked about those reports, University Police Department (UPD) Chief George Hughes said after police investigations, four were found to be false.
As for the fifth, Hughes amended the statistics in March to add an alleged rape in 2011 at what was then the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house.
“I have found no reason for it not to be on (the report),” Hughes said. “It was something we, as a campus, knew about.”
According to the Clery Act, all federally funded universities have to publish statistics on certain crimes — among them sexual assault — that occur on campus, in areas adjacent to campus or on campus-affiliated property such as greek organization houses. If a school is investigated and found in violation of the law, the U.S. Department of Education can impose fines of up to $35,000 for each infraction.
The Department of Education did not return a request for comment.
UPD’s acknowledgement of this mishandled case comes in the midst of a national conversation about campus sexual assault. The Department of Education announced earlier this month it was investigating 55 campuses for potentially mishandling sexual assaults, and The White House commissioned a task force in January to advise colleges on how to deal with reported rapes.
Sig Ep alleged rape off campus
The case Cal Poly admittedly left out was part of a string of three sexual assault reports that shook the campus in May 2011. It allegedly occurred in what was then a university-affiliated greek house and led to an arrest, though the suspect was never charged.
UPD left the case out of that year’s crime statistics, as well as subsequent reports that listed sexual assault crimes in 2011.
Even if authorities decide not to charge a suspect after a reported assault, the Clery Act requires universities to disclose the alleged crime in its annual statistics. As long as a report appears to have been made in good faith to either campus police or certain designated campus security authorities, such as the Dean of Students or University Housing, Cal Poly has to include it in the Campus Security Report, published each fall by UPD.
But if police “unfound” a crime, or conclusively determine it did not happen, it can be removed from the statistics.
Hughes, who did not join the university until 2012, said the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) handled the alleged fraternity house rape because of its off-campus location. UPD reaches out to local law enforcement agencies annually to collect statistics for the Campus Security Report, but SLOPD did not report the assault to Cal Poly.
Still, Hughes acknowledged that the university as a whole was aware of the case. UPD released a campuswide crime alert about the alleged rape, and Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong launched a task force on preventing sexual violence following two additional sexual assaults reported that month.
In four of the cases reported to University Housing, police unfounded the reports after investigating.
An unfounded crime is a report that law enforcement has investigated and found to be false or baseless, according to the Department of Education’s Clery Reporting Handbook. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook, which the Clery handbook is based on, further specifies the investigation must show that no offense occurred nor was attempted in order to unfound a crime report.
While Hughes declined to go into specifics on why individual cases were unfounded, he said some alleged sexual assaults at Cal Poly had been labeled as such because the reporting party later said they had not reported the crime “properly,” or that independent witnesses placed the reporting party at a different location than where the crime allegedly occurred.
“I’m confident that they were all properly investigated and dispositioned as unfounded,” Hughes said about the allegations that police unfounded.
On average, between 2 and 8 percent of sexual assault reports nationally are false, according to The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women.
Given those statistics, Katy Palmer started the Break the Silence Coalition this year, aimed at examining Cal Poly’s Clery Act procedures. She said she would be “curious to see more information about the cases, and what qualifies something as unfounded — as baseless, especially.”
“But without seeing the reports themselves, it’s hard to say that it’s completely wrong,” she added.
Safer Coordinator Christina Kaviani declined to comment on the unfounded and unreported assaults, but pointed instead to changes for the Campus Security Report that are planned for this year.
“I do know that we’re going to be doing an incredible job in the future,” she said. “Whatever has been done — that’s UPD’s territory, and I think that (Hughes) is really committed to changing it.”
Kaviani said she hasn’t heard of any survivors of sexual assault at Safer that have felt mistreated by the university.
“I care about students leaving here feeling happy and secure and healthy, and I see that,” she said. “If I wasn’t seeing that, I would be really upset, but I see students who have felt listened to and felt good.”
A national issue
Potential violations of the Clery Act have been in national headlines dozens of times this past year. In April 2013, Yale University was fined $165,000 for omitting four sexual assaults from its 2001 and 2002 crime statistics, even though it had corrected its statistics by 2004. In May of that same year, students from Dartmouth College, University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education alleging mishandling of numerous sexual assaults.
This year, 31 current and former UC Berkeley students filed two new complaints, alleging decades-long mishandling of sexual assaults.
On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was investigating 55 colleges and universities for potential Title IX violations. Title IX is a law separate from the Clery Act that mandates schools respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence, as well as maintain other efforts to ensure gender equity.
No California State University campuses were on the list of schools being investigated.
A Mustang News analysis in January placed Cal Poly’s sexual assault report rate at the tail end of all California public universities. Cal Poly ranked 29th out of 33 schools in sexual assaults per capita on its Clery report. Its raw number of reported assaults was the same as that of California Maritime Academy — a school with fewer than 1,000 students.
At that time, Hughes said Cal Poly’s numbers reflected a responsible student body and a low crime rate in the community. Meanwhile, Kaviani said the Campus Security Report gave a skewed vision of campus sexual assaults because of the geographic limitations of the Clery Act, and that Safer’s own statistics are a better gauge of what goes on in the community.
Including the alleged fraternity house rape that Hughes added to the report in March, Cal Poly is No. 28 of the 33 California public universities in sexual assaults reported per capita.
Regardless of legal reporting requirements, Palmer said Cal Poly’s low sexual assault report rate may be hurting sexual assault survivors in the community.
“It creates an atmosphere of isolation for the survivor,” she said. “Could you imagine being that one person that was represented? It creates an atmosphere of victim blaming, slut shaming and disbelief.”