Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News

Editor’s note: This story discusses themes including sexual violence.

Environmental management and protection freshman Lauren Tillotson was shocked to receive the first Clery Act notification in her inbox on Oct. 5, which notified students of a rape in Architecture Graveyard. Within a week, a second email arrived with news of another on-campus sexual assault.

“It made me pretty uncomfortable knowing just how often it happens,” Tillotson said. The descriptions were like “5’7” and “5’10” male” and you look around and it’s like, it could be anyone.”

On Oct. 10, the university sent the second email informing the campus community that another rape had occurred within the same week with different descriptions of the suspects. 

Tillotson said that she didn’t find the description from the recent assault very helpful, given that the description was vague enough to describe many individuals both on and off campus.

The university distributed the notifications in compliance with the timely warning function of the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires university officials to notify the campus community when certain crimes occur.

Clery Director and Title IX Coordinator Maren Hufton said that the Clery Act is a consumer protection law that requires higher education institutions to make disclosures about crimes reported on campus. 

The purpose of the act is “to inform our customers, our consumers — parents and students and visitors to our campus — about whether they want to come to our university or even visit the space,” according to Hufton. 

The Clery Act does not prevent crime, but rather serves as a “transparency function,” Hufton said. 

During a presentation led by SAFER for alarmed parents following the second reported rape, the confidential resource center outlined the criteria for Clery Act crimes that would warrant a timely warning. 

“The parameters of a timely warning are actually extremely narrow,” Assistant Director for Wellbeing Kara Samaniego said.

First, campus security authority needs to be aware that a crime has occurred. 

The crime must also be a Clery reportable crime. Clery Act crimes include criminal offenses, such as sexual assault, homicide or robbery, hate crimes and offenses under the Violence Against Women Act. 

The crime must also have occurred in Clery geography. At Cal Poly, Clery geography is anywhere on campus or any other university-controlled property. This includes officially registered sorority and fraternity houses. 

Lastly, the threat must be considered “serious and ongoing.”

Chief of Police George Hughes, in collaboration with Maren Hufton, determines whether the threat is “serious and ongoing” on a case-by-case basis. 

Chief Hughes said that the police will talk to whoever they need to in order to determine the presence of a serious and ongoing threat. 

“It’s not that we make these decisions in a vacuum,” Hughes said. “It really comes down to what information we can get and how quickly we can get it.”

Sometimes, the police department does not have enough information to discern if a crime falls under the Clery Act, such as when the location is unknown. Sometimes, police are able to mitigate a serious threat, so it is no longer a present danger.  Other times, the information the police have about a Clery Act crime cannot be released to the public.

“Sometimes, we just can’t put out a lot of information,” Hughes said. “When we can’t put out information for whatever reason — whether it be for the integrity of the investigation or privacy laws — people are going to always think of the worst.”

Hughes said the information that can be provided to students is determined on a case-by-case basis. 

“It depends on the incident itself,” Hughes said. “If we have an ongoing investigation, which we do in these matters, I cannot release anything that could jeopardize the integrity of that investigation.” 

Releasing too much information could hinder identifying a suspect, according to Hughes. 

Hufton said that the university does not release information about cases of sexual assault unless there is a requirement to do so. She said it is a “tremendous misfortune” that members of the campus community may assume Cal Poly responds to sexual assault allegations from a PR standpoint because that’s not generally what she thinks about when following processes and procedures required by the law.  

“We strive to keep everything as private as possible,” Hufton said. “That’s a victim’s right.”

Hughes said until the recent notifications there has not been a crime that falls under the criteria for the Clery Act since 2018. 

University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said that the recent notifications relating to sexual assault do not correlate to rising rates of sexual assault. 

“It’s a mistake to look at reports that are based on circumstances of individual cases and use that as an interpretation to mean that the rates of crimes are going up,” Lazier said. “You’re talking about apples and oranges there.”

Moreover, students may not be notified when reported cases have been solved, even when such cases have been made public in compliance with the Clery Act. 

Following a timely warning, campus officials will determine whether or not it is in the best interest of students to update them on whether the suspect has been apprehended. 

Hufton said the university is not required to notify students when a suspect has been identified following a timely warning. 

After a sexual assault has been reported to the police department, Hughes said the police investigate the crime and fulfill the duty of a mandated reporter.

Investigations following a reported sexual assault are centered around the needs of the victim. 

“[The criminal investigation] is driven by the survivor and how willing he or she is to have an actual criminal investigation,” Hughes said. 

Lazier said that overall, the message is that cases are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and that the university has the interest of the campus community and those involved in these cases in mind. 

“We’re trying to balance the privacy issues, the safety issues and the integrity of the investigation to reach a resolution that keeps everyone safe and holds people accountable for things they’ve done wrong,” Lazier said. 

Tilletson said her friends are a lot more cautious when deciding to go out, and carrying pepper spray is the new normal.

“The people I’ve talked to are just unsettled by [the unsolved case],” Tilletson said. “It’s kind of unnerving.” 

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