Nine sexual assaults near campus in the past two years fit the same pattern. | Illustration by Megan Heddinger and Sean McMinn

Brooke Sperbeck
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For students who have been on campus long enough, they know the email. It brings news from university police of the latest instance of an attempted sexual assault. The victim is caught from behind by a suspect who tries to remove her clothing, then runs once she screams or fights back.

The University Police Department (UPD) and the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) are working together to investigate two of these kinds of sexual assaults that happened this past month, UPD Chief George Hughes said, and they could be related to a string of attacks that happened on and around campus in 2012, when a suspect approached a woman from behind and tried to grab her underwear on four different occasions. Police also reported two similar attacks in February 2013, both on Foothill Boulevard.

“We’ve had two recent attacks, one on campus and one just off campus that SLOPD is investigating, and obviously there are similarities in those two attacks,” Hughes said.

The most recent assault allegedly occurred April 18 near the East Foothill Boulevard area of Mustang Village, and the other was April 8 in the Morro building of Cerro Vista Apartments.

In both instances, a person approached the victim from behind and grabbed under her skirt.

Descriptions of the suspects — a white or Hispanic male in his 20s — and the times of both attacks also appear to be consistent.

Hughes said these similarities indicate the same person could have committed attacks.

“We are looking at it that way, and that’s why were working with SLOPD together on this, because since they are similar and the descriptions are similar,” Hughes said.

​ ​“They obviously could be the same person.”

An investigator is looking back at the 2012 assaults to see what kind of connection exists between them.

“There are similarities there also, so could this potentially be the same person, because it is the same M.O. also,” Hughes said.

The police departments are following up on several leads, but Hughes declined to give specifics on the investigation.

Sexual assault is “endemic” on college campuses, with one in five college women being sexually assaulted before they graduate, according to assistant sociology professor Christopher Bickel, who teaches about sexual assault in his criminal justice classes.

“I think it’s a product not so much of criminal minds as it is a product of how we’re socializing young men to be, in terms of their sense of entitlement when it comes to what they can and can’t do with women’s bodies,” he said.

The kind of attacks reported at Cal Poly, however, aren’t the typical assaults that happen on a college campus.

“That’s actually the rare type of sexual assault; the stuff that actually happens quite frequently at Cal Poly that doesn’t enter the statistics is more of the acquaintance, the date rape,” Bickel said.

The act of sexual assault is less about sex and more about power, Bickel said.Though the suspect or suspects in April didn’t rape the victims, their actions indicate the potential for more ​serious ​assaults in the future.

“There’s definitely a problem where something has gone wrong and that person thinks this is an acceptable thing to do and doing that repeatedly,” Bickel said. “And that’s not going to desist unless there’s an intervention.”

But intervention is unlikely unless the person is caught, which is difficult because not all assaults are reported.

“There’s a lot of reasons why women may not report it, because the environment isn’t conducive where women feel safe to do so,” Bickel said.​ “But as long as people aren’t reporting it, most people get away and so it’s likely to happen over and over again.”

Instead of addressing the root of the problem of sexual assault, Bickel said he believes the university ​has often put the responsibility on potential​ victims.

Bickel remembers an email from a past university administrator that addressed a sexual assault on campus by encouraging women to travel in groups and be careful.

The email never addressed the perpetrators who commit the crimes.

“I never saw anywhere in his email that said, ‘Hey guys, we have to do better than this,’” Bickel said.

Dean of Students Jean DeCosta said the university addressed last month’s assaults through emergency alerts and encouraging safe practices.

“We try and remind students through our different housing programs and other interactions that we have with students and our staff to practice good safety measures to go out with friends, stay with friends; where you go with a friend, come home with a friend,” DeCosta said. “Be aware of your surroundings, be mindful that you’re doing what you need to do in order to stay safe.”

One way UPD has addressed the assaults is by extending the hours of the escort van services until 2 a.m.

Hughes said the assaults in April were one factor in the decision to extend hours, along with the late-night hours of new food locations such as Subway and Yogurt Creations.

He’s also asked for help from on-campus groups to improve the van service.

“I have asked ASI and Safer to help me pull together a student-led focus group to discuss and propose what they would like to see in a campus escort program,” Hughes wrote in a statement to Mustang News.

There used to be red handprints on Cal Poly’s campus where a sexual assault occurred, which Bickel said were important in bringing attention to the prevalence of sexual assault on campus.

Those red hands were removed by a joint committee of Safer and the women’s safety committee, according to DeCosta. The committee decided a memorial pole in the University Union Plaza would be more effective in remembering sexual assaults that happened, she said.

Bickel said he thinks erasing the hands doesn’t communicate the message ​of the university being ​​dedicated to stopping assaults.

“Universities try to sweep this issue under the rug because parents see a lot of sexual assaults happen and they may fear for the safety of their children,” Bickel said. “But I would like to see a culture saying, ‘Until we actually eliminate this, we’re always going to keep this as a powerful reminder.’”

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