The second 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.

Sociology junior Paige Ackerman has gone through three rounds of required yearly prevention modules at Cal Poly. She knows students mute these training or distract themselves while going through them. After all, it feels like the university checks off boxes, she said, resulting in presentations rather than thoughtful actions.

“The university isn’t putting real effort towards something that is so important, and that’s affecting every student in some way, shape or form,” Ackerman said.

As an Alpha Chi Omega member, Ackerman helped codify “consent talks” in fall 2022, a short speech where student-led Safer chairs in each chapter define consent at each open bar event in Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL).

Even as Cal Poly has required various trainings for sexual assault prevention, students still feel the content in online modules and orientation is outdated and unengaging, inhibiting real change. 

Mustang News found that students want more updated training online, in orientation and in Greek Life in order for prevention to be taken more seriously.

The university recognizes “some criticism of existing online trainings among the campus community,” yet leans on its growing prevention efforts to increase student awareness around the issue.

The current state of requirements and trainings

In 2015, the CSU required online training modules, noting that “each campus must implement preventive education programs to promote the awareness of CSU

policies against Sex Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, Dating and Domestic Violence and Stalking and to make victim resources available, including comprehensive victim services.”

The CSU requires all students and employees to complete online training yearly on sexual assault prevention and anti-discrimination practices in the workplace, administered through Vector Solutions. 

If students fail to complete the training, a registration hold will be enforced for the following quarter, the Office of the Dean of Students stated.

For Greek Life and orientation presentations, groups request training or presentation they want from the lead sexual violence organization at Cal Poly, Safer.

Safer acts as the main campus resource for services on sexual violence prevention and training. The organization offers additional materials for training across college departments and leadership training offered quarterly, which is not mandatory. 

The departments that receive this training are not publicized according to Safer Director Kara Samaniego after Mustang News asked for the records on which departments use the training.

“We are always seeking to reach more departments to offer workshops on creating trauma-informed class/office environments and supporting survivors,” Samaniego said.

Orientation training in need of updates to fit student needs, former leaders say

When Morgan V. became a WOW leader, she had to learn again what assault was – despite experiencing it twice herself. She found it challenging to advocate for alternative training, because it would add more work to her plate, she said. It was triggering to walk through the awareness gallery at WOW, feeling there was no other option. 

During WOW, incoming students are guided through the awareness gallery which aims to inform people on topics such as discrimination, mental wellbeing, hazing and sexual violence.

“I felt like I had to have a bunch of really, really hard conversations within the first week,” she said. “I hadn’t even stepped on campus and then coming back and being a WOW leader and having to sit through a lot of these presentations and trainings multiple times was also really difficult.”

The university has said they update orientation training regularly, with recent updates focusing on alcohol abuse and more modules on sexual violence — but students have doubts. For Morgan, she hopes the university provides more survivor-based resources.

“There’s a lot of talk around sexual assault prevention and what sexual assault is, but I don’t think there is actually, like, a lot of talking about what being a survivor looks like,” Morgan said.

Morgan asked to omit her last name for privacy, to avoid any backlash from her experience.

Michael Upton standing outside the Construction Lab where the Awareness Gallery is held during WOW, on Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Ashley Spinoglio | Mustang News

In his three years of being a WOW leader, wine and viticulture senior Michael Upton has not seen changes in the programming. His view is that the structure of WOW training has a space where people can’t engage in effective dialogue with the training they receive. 

“Just going through the trainings, everyone rolls their eyes, male, female and others — just no one really takes it too seriously right off the bat,” Upton said of how some WOW leaders react to sexual assault training.

In his three years of being a WOW Leader, the same resources and trainings have been used for sexual assault prevention. To him this is “lazy,” appearing to “cast a net” of solutions rather than put effort into specific conversations.

Mustang News visited the awareness gallery in September 2022 and found that the timeline of hate crimes on campus was not updated past 2018, and each scenario of sexual assault included people that the survivor didn’t know.

The 10-year timeline featured at the awareness gallery, from 2008 to 2018 on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Elizabeth Wilson | Mustang News
Posters on sexual assault scenarios at the awareness gallery are on the wall to the entrance of the exhibit during orientation, Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Elizabeth Wilson | Mustang News

Concerns of Kristin Smart not being included in the awareness gallery have been previously shared by students who feel saying Smart’s name is an important course of action at remembering her legacy.

Other women who attended Cal Poly also faced gender-based violence and were not included in the awareness gallery: Rachel Newhouse, Aundria Crawford, Kristina Hogan and Laci Peterson. Including specific stories from a survivor depends on the family’s wishes, Lazier said.

Another WOW Leader from 2014 to 2017 and a WOW Facilitator from 2016 to 2017, dairy science alum Nathan Kesser said that he doesn’t remember specific cases being used in the awareness gallery of those who had been assaulted — including Kristin Smart. 

The information included in the gallery is decided by the New Student and Transition Programs. Lazier said that the orientation leaders are responsible for updating the gallery yearly, but in recent years there have been staffing issues.

Upton feels that with the WOW training and timeframe, there are constraints on what information and resources can be shared, so there should be other discussions or one-unit classes offered where people can talk more about sexual assault prevention.

In addition to the awareness gallery, the Sex.E show during WOW discusses what consent looks like through an interactive and humorous approach on the topic.

Business administration alum Nick Evans graduated in 2022 and thought that the Sex.E show made the education “perceived better and more easily” due to the humorous approach it took.

Not everyone says that the sexual assault prevention training during orientation is ineffective or nonexistent.

In a survey Mustang News sent to a randomized sample of 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 762 students responded (19% response rate). The majority rated the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention training during SLO Days a 3 out of 5. Most students rated WOW’s training effectiveness a 4 out of 5.

When graphic communications senior Avery Ahern walked through the awareness gallery as a freshman entering Cal Poly, it helped her realize she had been sexually assaulted before. 

“I remember feeling pretty educated about it and learning that sexual assault comes in all forms,” Ahern said. “It can happen to anyone.”

Jaenine Santos sitting on steps outside the Business Silo where some sorority chapter meetings are held on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Annabelle Fagans | Mustang News

Lack of attention paid to sexual assault pushes students out of FSL

Biochemistry senior Jaenine Santos rushed Alpha Beta her sophomore year and left after a quarter because she felt everything was “surface level.” She remembered hearing others in her sorority share experiences of rape, but she felt not much was done after that.

At the time she was involved, she does not remember having specific training on sexual assault prevention in her sorority.

“I don’t think there was really any sexual assault prevention like I didn’t, we didn’t really talk about it,” Santos said.

Wine and viticulture senior Ava Brackenbury rushed Chi Omega her sophomore year and left nearly two quarters later for a similar reason.

“I feel like there definitely is a little bit more of a hush hush about our culture, in terms of sexual assault and Greek life because, you know,  people want to protect their brothers or their chapter or their community,” Brackenbury said.

During Fall 2022 though, codified policies were enforced in Greek Life to discuss sexual assault prevention more, including consent talks. The amount of effort each chapter puts into sexual assault prevention training varies, though each fraternity and sorority have training requirements in addition to consent talks.

Ackerman, who pushed for the consent talks, felt obligated to take on leadership to make change at Cal Poly. After learning her brother who attended UC Berkeley led a consent talk at the beginning of each party at his fraternity,  her sophomore year she felt “surprised” Cal Poly did not have something similar.

Alpha Chi Omega sorority member Paige Ackerman pushed for consent talks at her sorority after feeling there was a lack of prevention tools outside of presentations on Feb. 10, 2023. Credit: Annabelle Fagans | Mustang News

She joined the executive board and pitched the idea to the rest of the board – they implemented it. Ackerman spoke with all the Panhellenic presidents, fraternity presidents and fraternity risk managers to implement the consent as well.

“And to my knowledge, not a lot came out of that,” Ackerman said. “There was a lot of interest from people individually who said, ‘Wow, I would love to implement this in my chapter.’ But the overall idea that I was getting was people just didn’t know how to do it.”

However, she met with Safer Prevention Specialist Jennifer MacMartin who helped her turn consent talks into policy for all events where alcohol is served to those 21 and older. Safer Representatives lead the consent talks, which are required for any event hosted in Greek Life that has alcohol present.

Sororities are not allowed to have alcohol at their chapter houses, though fraternities are, meaning the consent talks are required to occur at fraternity events. Events must be registered beforehand.

“It’s not every fraternity,” Ackerman said of alcohol-related sexual assault. “It’s not every fraternity man. So I think that’s important to emphasize. But also just recognizing the fact that that happens is super important.”

Sigma Phi Epsilon has held multiple training days on risk management and preventing sexual assault. According to one alum, these trainings would be about five hours long.

At least two members of each sorority and fraternity are required to attend two Safer workshops each quarter, VP of Fraternity and Sorority Life Elizabeth Aiello-Coppola said.

If this quota is not met, the chapter has to send double the amount of members at the next workshop or host a makeup workshop with their entire chapter. Fall quarter, two fraternities did not meet the first requirement and three fraternities did not meet the second training requirement out of 17 Inter Fratenrity Council chapters.

For the Panhellenic Association, which oversees sororities, all nine sororities met the training requirement but two of the nine did not meet the second training requirement. The United Sorority and Fraternity Council had two of nine organizations that did not meet the first requirement and three did not meet the second requirement.

“If a chapter is continuously not meeting requirements, our office would restrict their chapter from having social events for an x amount of weeks,” Aiello-Coppola said.

No chapters are currently at risk for having their social activities restricted due to attendance, as of Feb. 25.

A former Beta Theta Pi VP of Risk Management said that the consent talks have contributed to a larger culture shift within Greek Life. 

The member recognized that their fraternity had faced backlash from a @shadesofcalpoly Instagram post concerning allegations of sexual assault, but said that it was only “shade.”

“We have a no tolerance policy within our chapter at least,” they said. “So if there’s any like whisperings, or like, any valid, or just any accusations, we immediately investigate it. And if it was sexual assault, or sexual abuse, sexual assault, if there’s anything like, in question at all, that brother will not be part of our chapter anymore.”

However, they added that when fraternities were approached by Ackerman to do the consent talks, some appeared apprehensive or uninterested.

Mechanical engineering junior Nikolas Tanski rushed Zeta Beta Tau his sophomore year. He used Safer resources to help deal with and resolve a personal experience he had. When he joined his fraternity, he liked how they addressed allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Now, Tanski is the Safer Chair for Zeta Beta Tau last quarter, his role acting as a liaison between the fraternity and Safer. 

He said the fraternity has an acronym they use during events which signals that a brother should check themselves if a brother appears to be making someone feel uncomfortable. This acronym is in addition to the consent talks, he said.

“I will say at the moment it’s been a little bit more of a dialogue,” the Safer Chair said. “I think the goal is to bring us more to a discussion.”