While a new academic year at Cal Poly is just getting started, the university is already fielding multiple reports of sexual assaults that allegedly occurred on and off campus.
Between Aug. 28 and Oct. 1, Cal Poly police received six reports of sexual assault or misconduct, according to police logs. Those included two reports of rape, one report of unlawful intercourse, one report of oral copulation with an intoxicated victim, and two other reports of unspecified sex offenses.
Of the six reported assaults, two cases were already closed, one was deemed to be unfounded, and another was transferred to the SLO Police Department because it allegedly occurred off campus. Five of the six alleged assaults occurred after classes at the university began on Sept. 14.
In recent years, Cal Poly and other U.S. colleges and universities have struggled to address growing concerns about how campus-related rapes are handled and investigated. This year appears to be no exception. In addition to the spate of assault reports to campus police at the beginning of the academic year, a Sept. 27 article published in Mustang News reported that there are at least two active Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Title IX investigations at Cal Poly. The same article also stated that seven female students have filed sexual assault complaints about the same male student perpetrator with Cal Poly Safer, a campus resource for sexual assault victims.
Cal Poly Spokesman Matt Lazier told New Times that the university was prohibited from discussing Title IX investigations and declined to comment on additional details in the Mustang News story.
University officials and San Luis Obispo law enforcement said the spree of reports and investigations were routine for the beginning of a new academic year at college. In an email response to questions from New Times, Lazier said the University Police Department explained that the amount of reported assaults thus far this school year was "not unusual."
SLOPD Sgt. Chad Pfarr, the city's head of investigations, said that "at the beginning of the school year, you get an uptick" in reports of sexual assaults and "it seems like they are always alcohol related." He said students often "feel like they got sexually assaulted because they blacked out" when really, "it was just something that was conjured up."
"We get a ton of young people that come into town that have never really consumed alcohol before and now they're experimenting with different alcohols," Pfarr said. "Suddenly they have too much and they black out and the automatic assumption is, 'I was roofied and sexually assaulted.' More times than not, that's not the case."
Pfarr added that the SLOPD "investigates every case we get" and that they "don't cut corners."
Advocates for sexual assault victims have long raised concerns about linking alcohol consumption with rape, claiming that it can promote an unfair assumption that places fault on the accuser and deters them from reporting the crime.
"We know that alcohol does not cause sexual assault," said Jane Pomeroy, associate director for RISE, a local nonprofit organization that offers support and resources for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. "Sexual assault is about power and control. When we have this narrative about alcohol causing sexual assault or this notion that if we drink, we will be sexually assaulted, it can become victim blaming. We are constantly trying to dispel these myths."
In a subsequent New Times interview with SLOPD's Capt. Chris Staley, Staley said "generalized statements" like Sgt. Pfarr's were "not what we want to put out in the public."
"Each case is an individual case. We don't want [victims] to hesitate to come forward, especially with this type of crime," Staley said. "We don't want them to feel any differently in any way."
When asked whether RISE had heard any complaints from sexual assault victims about how the SLOPD handled their cases, Pomeroy declined to comment, but she stated that RISE works closely with local police and appreciates their partnership.
While Pomeroy pushed back on linking alleged victims' use of alcohol to sexual assault, she added that increased reporting of rape and other sexual misconduct on college campus may not indicate that the problem is getting worse, but could mean that students are feeling more confident in reporting such incidents to their university or law enforcement.
According to recently released statistics, Cal Poly reported 17 total incidents of various sexual offenses, including rape, statutory rape, and fondling, in 2016. At least five of those occurred off campus, according to the report.