On Dec. 5, 2018 business administration sophomore Ashley Rios attempted suicide by alcohol poisoning. Five days later, she was placed on disciplinary probation for having marijuana and alcohol in her residence hall room the night she tried to take her life.
“I was already feeling horrible because of what had happened,” Rios said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I survived this, and for what — for me to get in trouble?’”
According to University Housing Marketing Coordinator Julia Bluff, after a student attempts suicide on campus, the standard procedure is to follow up with residents through University Housing, the Dean of Students Office, PULSE, Campus Health and Wellbeing, or other programs on campus that provide the student with individualized support.
“There are no ‘consequences’ for someone who has attempted to harm themselves or attempt suicide,” Bluff wrote in an email to Mustang News. “We want residents to feel supported, not punished.”
However, Rios said punished is exactly how she felt.
Rios struggled with depression since she was 13 years old. Growing up, she said she knew she was gay, but was not sure if her parents would accept her if she told them the truth. She had come out to her friends in 2015, but that part of her identity was still a secret to her family. Rios said she hoped college would be a fresh start, but that was not the case.
“Some days, I felt nothing,” Rios said. “That’s what depression is sometimes, you just feel nothing.”
She said her friends knew she was in a dark place. They encouraged her to see a counselor on campus, so she visited the Health Center, where she was prescribed anti-depressants.
Despite multiple counseling sessions and prescribed pills, she said her mental health began to spiral a few weeks into her first quarter. Rios began to miss class, drink heavily and harm herself.
On Dec. 5, Rios said while drinking with friends she quietly decided that was the night she would try to take her own life.
“After I took my first drink, I was like, ‘You know what? This is what is happening tonight,’” Rios said. “I was like, ‘I just don’t care anymore. I don’t want to be here anymore.’”
A Trinity Hall resident called 911 and police and paramedics arrived on the scene. They asked Rios what happened, but she said she was too out of it to answer. She was taken to the hospital, and spent the night in the crisis unit.
Rios met with University Housing representatives and the Dean of Students Office members days after she was released from the hospital. There, Rios said they told her she had been found guilty of possessing alcohol and drugs in the residence halls, and would be placed on disciplinary probation for the next year.
As a result of the probation, Rios was not allowed to become a Week of Welcome (WOW) leader or a residential advisor (RA) – positions she said she aspired to have since her first days at Cal Poly. University Housing officials told her she might have a chance if she explained her probation circumstances in her applications.
“I was like, ‘So I have to say that I tried to kill myself to try to get this orientation leader position?’” Rios said.
According to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR), disciplinary probation is “a designated period of time during which the privileges of continuing in student status are conditioned upon future behavior. Conditions may include the potential loss of specified privileges to which a current student would otherwise be entitled, or the probability of more severe disciplinary sanctions if the student is found to violate any University rule during the probationary period.”
In Cal Poly’s Student Code of Conduct, items nine and 10 of Title 5.2 §41301 prohibit underage students’ use of alcohol and illegal drugs.
Bluff said that depending on the situation, probation may require the resident to go to an educational seminar, have one-on-one meetings with a peer health coach or a professional health educator, write a reflection paper or attend an educational program.
Rios said she felt more punished than some of her other friends who had been caught with alcohol and were not placed on disciplinary probation.
“[My friends] had to do some alcohol education thing, some small thing,” Rios said. “That was it. It wasn’t this long, drawn-out punishment.”
Rios left Cal Poly for a quarter and a half to focus on her mental health, which extended her probation from Winter 2019 to Spring 2020. She said at first she did not know if she even wanted to return to school, but she decided to finish her degree.
At the beginning of Fall 2019, Rios sat down with campus officials in a follow up meeting. Again, she asked them for clarification as to why she was still on disciplinary probation, but was met with the same answers — she violated the Code of Conduct.
“The purpose [of probation] is to provide students with a learning opportunity to reflect on the incident that got them referred to a disciplinary process (either through the OSRR or Housing) and gain some new knowledge and tactics to avoid another incident,” Bluff wrote in an email to Mustang News.
OSRR Assistant Director Christina Tutt said it’s no secret that alcohol is one of the largest issues on Cal Poly’s campus. The role of OSRR is not only to hold students accountable to the code, but also to help students succeed, according to Tutt.
“Oftentimes violating the Code of Conduct is just a bump in the road of their story and myself, my supervisor and my team that I work with all do this work because we really appreciate and respect the moment in the student’s life when they are here,” Tutt said.
Over the summer, Rios took to Twitter under the handle @ashleyriosss to share her experience and received multiple direct messages telling her that she was not alone.
“I feel like sharing it was an important part of my personal journey of getting over it and putting it more behind me,” Rios said. “I wanted to let other students know, even if they’re not at Cal Poly — my friends at other colleges, whoever saw it on Twitter — that I’m going through it too.”
After taking time away from school, Rios said the relationships she made with students and professors made her experience at Cal Poly worthwhile. After her probation is lifted in Spring 2020, Rios said she plans to continue to pursue her goals of becoming a WOW leader, and potentially an RA.
“I will tell them why I’m on probation, and that I wasn’t just partying on a Wednesday, because that’s definitely what it looks like on paper,” Rios said.
Rios said she’s in a completely different state of mind now, but still wishes the university had helped her in a way that did not make it more difficult to achieve her goals.
“With mental health, every person needs something different after something like that,” Rios said. “I don’t know what kind of university policy they could introduce. I think listening to what the student wants would be better than just deciding what you think the student wants.”