The first of three articles in an investigative series on sexual assault at Cal Poly and the university’s response. To view the full series, go here.
It was May 2011. Three rapes on or near campus had been reported in the span of just nine days. The university responded with condemnation, with President Jeffrey Armstrong launching a task force to reevaluate how campus organizations responded to issues of sexual assault and alcohol abuse.
Community leaders were called upon “to examine how we can create a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault, that never blames the victims of sexual assault,” Armstrong wrote.
A presidential task force released its recommendations on Feb. 12, 2012, calling for increased support, resources, communication and services for sexual violence prevention and education. Some recommendations called for safe rides, a campus safety application, informational resource cards and increased funding for Safer, Cal Poly’s confidential resource for sexual violence.
Still, in 2021, Cal Poly had the highest reports of sexual assault in the Cal State University system and the second highest for the previous two years — and that’s only of the assaults that were reported.
For the past 10 months, Mustang News interviewed more than 25 community members, analyzed sexual assault reports, finance records and investigation records to understand how sexual assault impacts Cal Poly.
More than a decade after the task force’s recommendations, students interviewed by Mustang News feel unaware of what resources the university has, find prevention training methods outdated and say their perpetrators are not being held accountable. These feelings are not met without efforts the university has made to increase awareness around sexual violence and how to prevent it.
According to Cal Poly Clery Director and Title IX Coordinator Maren Hufton, who helps lead the university’s efforts for tracking and responding to sexual assault reports, more reports are a sign of progress since sex-related crimes often go unreported.
“As our society and our culture migrates to more of a place of wanting to shine a light on these issues and bring sex and gender based violence into the conversation, we’re going to hear about it more and more,” Hufton said. “It’s coming out of the shadows.”
Cal Poly’s sexual assault reports were above CSU average in 2021
Cal Poly had 67 sex-related crimes in 2021, according to Cal Poly’s Annual Security Report. CSU campuses on average saw only about 17 reports. In 2021, there were 402 reports of sex-related crimes across the CSU.
The reports of sex-related crimes included fondling, sexual assault, rape, statutory rape, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, including both on and off campus incidents.
A bar graph using Annual Security Reports data from Cal Poly since 2011, showing an increase in sexual assault reports over the years.
Of all Cal Poly crime reports in 2021, most were stalking, followed by fondling and rape. There were 26 reports of stalking and 16 reports of rape in 2021. Fondling reports have tripled in the past three reporting years, with five reports in 2019, six reports in 2020 and 18 reports in 2021. As of March 2023, reports for the 2021 to 2022 year have not been released.
Horizontal bar charts using Annual Security Reports data from the past three years across the Cal State University system, showing the highest amount of reports at Cal Poly in 2021 and second highest in 2019.
The number of reports are more reflective of incidents, Hufton said. University spokesperson Matt Lazier said that Cal Poly has the largest student body and refined programs for prevention meaning that there are more reports made overall.
Campus climate shifts in the past decade
For women and queer gender studies professor Rachel Fernflores, she found it “weird” coming to Cal Poly 22 years ago, where multiple rape cases were part of the university’s recent history.
Fernflores was in charge of the task force and submitted the report to Armstrong around November 2011. Three to four years later, the university completed all of the suggestions, Fernflores said.
Since then, Cal Poly has increased staff and funding for Safer, launched a safety app, The Mustang Shuttle service and updated plans each year to improve safety overall. Some recommendations have been implemented gradually, including the Rave Guardian app in 2021 which was launched nearly 10 years later.
Safer is the university’s main resource for advocacy services and prevention facilitation on campus, and it’s only growing. In 2015, $203,409 was directed to Safer compared to $517,232 in 2021, according to documents obtained by a records request.
A line graph using financial records from Cal Poly showing an increase in the Safer budget since 2015.
Safer currently has three full-time advocates, a number that has increased from one full-time advocate in 2015. Eventually, one of the advocates will be transitioned into a survivor wellness coordinator though still provide advocacy services, university spokesperson Matt Lazier told Mustang News.
Although Fernflores feels “we’re in a better place” compared to 20 years ago, she hopes the conversation around sexual violence continues at Cal Poly.
Fernflores hopes the university will “continue doing campus climate surveys to find out what students are experiencing” to keep up with developing resources applicable to Cal Poly’s student body.
In 2011, the CSU system addressed a ‘Dear Colleague Letter’ to campuses. The letter instructed each university how they should use Title IX, a sex and gender protective amendment, in their protocols.
The letter was followed by another task force in 2015 aimed at unifying efforts against sexual assault.
In Cal Poly’s 2023 annual safety plan, the university proposed expanding advocacy services and presentations to improve “sexual violence awareness.”
Not all students are aware of campus resources for sexual assault and prevention. In a Mustang News survey sent to a random sample with 762 responses, 68% of students said that they were not aware Cal Poly had the safety app, called Rave Guardian, prior to taking the survey. 97% of respondents said that they had not used the app.
Red handprints were painted across campus where an assault had occurred on campus. In the 2000s, the handprints were memorialized with pillars. Fernflores felt that the handprints were a healthy reminder of the campus history. But now, 78.9% of students say they haven’t learned about the significance of the red handprints, according to the survey.
For campus safety, a majority of respondents ranked their concern for safety a two out of five. Of the respondents, the majority said they were first years, followed by third years. Over half identified as female. In the survey, 34.6% of respondents said they knew someone who had been sexually assaulted since fall quarter began.
In addition, only 14.8% reported a high understanding of how to report an assault.
How students feel about campus safety and reporting their assault
Physics senior Sudheendra Gamoji has found it difficult to reach out to the university for support — and challenging to do as he had experienced assault before. As a man, he said he feels there is stigma with men experiencing emotional or sexual abuse from women.
“To be perfectly honest, I feel uncomfortable using the term survivor or victim or anything like that,” Gamoji said. “Because I feel like what happened to me is not as bad as what happened to other women.”
Gamoji used an advocate service on campus, but did not find support through other university resources. He was warned by people he knew that this might be the case.
“I don’t fully trust the Title IX Office here,” Gamoji said. “I have friends who have tried to go through the legal action route and they just ended up getting re-traumatized with the whole Title IX process.”
He wishes that the campus narrative around sexual assault was not one thing or another, since everyone is affected by the issue. Gamoji thinks that some awareness training enforced by the university “feels incredibly performative.”
“There's always more you can do to prioritize survivors … when you're not even doing the bare minimum,” Gamoji said of the university.
In recent years, students have advocated for more safety services on campus. The Mustang Shuttle Rides were shortened due to the pandemic then reexpanded to both daytime and nighttime operations, following two rape reports in Fall 2021.
One of those reports was unfounded, though students expressed concern for the lack of communication around the investigations, Mustang News previously reported. Upcoming changes in the next two years include increasing shuttle hours and locations, outlined in the 2023 safety plan.
Business administration senior Diana Suarez petitioned Cal Poly to re-implement the Mustang Shuttle service. Suarez said she was relieved when the service was brought to campus, though found it a little odd given she initially received a response that it was “impossible” to do so.
In an Oct. 2021 email obtained by Mustang News, Director of Transportation and Parking Services Marlene Cramer told Suarez that “the escort van was essentially a campus shuttle program, not specifically a safety program.”
Suarez was a junior living off campus when she noticed that the shuttle had been taken away. In light of the two reports of rape that fall, this made her feel nervous.
Living off campus this year, Suarez had a class 4-6 p.m. and was concerned about walking back, until she saw her friends were in the same class as her and they could walk together.
Environmental management and protection sophomore Jordan Langley said that the Mustang Shuttle improved her feelings on campus safety. However, she said that some spots on campus are still too dark for comfort.
During fall quarter, Langley had a core class from 6-9 p.m., where she and at least one other girl in the class would worry about walking home afterward.
“It's just kind of disheartening, you know?” Langley said.
Another student said they feel especially nervous after being stalked off campus. They asked to remain anonymous for their safety. They decided not to report to the university because, after past experience reporting to off campus police, the student wanted to avoid going through the process again.
“I figured if that person was going to do something weird, it wouldn't be on campus,” the student said. “And honestly, the first time going through with a police officer in town was not fun, especially ‘cause it was all super new.”
Students have historically rallied against sexual assault at Cal Poly, expressing frustration for how the university has responded to different allegations.
Assistant Director of Wellbeing Kara Samaniego, who oversees Safer, says the history of this issue on campus — and elsewhere — isn’t lost on her. Samaniego was an undergraduate student at Cal Poly when the three rapes were reported in May 2011.
“If you're mad, join us with this, because this is a societal issue,” Samaniego said. “This is something that every single person on our campus plays a role in deconstructing and envisioning a campus where this doesn't happen.”
Following articles will look ahead at how students largely feel about campus climate regarding sexual assault prevention measures, and what changes community members hope to see in store for the university.
Elizabeth Wilson volunteered at one Safer held event in April 2022, prior to starting this investigative series. She has no affiliation with Safer and has not volunteered for Safer since then.