If asked to condemn sexual violence, the vast majority of people on this planet likely wouldn’t pause for a second before doing so. It’s not as if there’s widespread abiding affection for one of humanity’s most horrific crimes or those who perpetrate it.
As happens far too often, though, the chasm between words and actions is depressingly wide.
In recent months at Cal Poly, a string of reported sexual assaults has sobered a community that’s been saying all the right things while discovering its actions aren’t quite measuring up to its message.
“I would hope these assaults will serve as a wake-up call for the community,” said Jennifer Adams, executive director of RISE, a local nonprofit that helps victims of sexual violence. “This is not just a Cal Poly problem, either—this is a cultural and a community problem, and we need to address it comprehensively.”
The first alleged sexual assault involved a male perpetrator and a female victim, occurred at an off-campus house affiliated with the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, and took place on Oct. 31, 2014. Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham told New Times that his office has declined to file criminal charges in this case due to “insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The second reported assault was eerily similar—alleged male-on-female sexual violence at a fraternity house—this time, the Alpha Gamma Rho house. Most details of this incident aren’t public, as the victim has declined to involve law enforcement or pursue charges, but it was reported to have occurred in early December.
Most recently, yet another male-on-female sexual assault was reported on Jan. 10 at a fraternity house on the 1200 block of Monte Vista Place. San Luis Obispo police are investigating the alleged assault and have identified a potential suspect, but have yet to make an arrest or submit the case to the DA’s office.
After hearing significant public outcry, top university administrators announced in a Jan. 13 letter that they’d placed the entirety of Cal Poly’s Greek life on “temporary social probation.” Later that day, the university also announced that Poly’s Pi Kappa Alpha chapter has been suspended for a minimum of six years, while adding that the Alpha Gamma Rho chapter is officially under investigation.
Essentially, the overall probation means there’s a complete ban on social events hosted by any fraternity or sorority, alcohol or no.
“Social probation will remain in effect until our students develop a plan to enhance our existing education efforts and programs and create safer social environment when organizations host parties,” reads the Jan. 13 letter signed by President Jeffrey Armstrong, Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey, and Dean of Students Jean DeCosta. “We hope to have a thoughtful plan for culture change proposed by our students in 30 days, at which point we will revisit the social probation.”
Across the board, stakeholders involved with the ongoing conversation about sexual assault told New Times that the community is poised at a crucial tipping point that will determine a great deal about how it will respond to sexual assault from now on.
“The biggest piece for us right now is moving from good conversations to good actions,” said Panhellenic Council President Kristen Henry. “The best way to view [probation] is not as a punishment but as an opportunity to make a lasting impact on our campus. We’re motivated to leave a legacy, and we want that legacy to be positive.”
Henry, also a sister in the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, said that her top personal goal is “creating a cultural change to move towards a zero tolerance policy with sexual assault.”
She added that she’s supportive of the administration’s probation decision applying to both sororities and fraternities because “we can’t point fingers, and we all need to work together as an entire Greek system.”
Henry’s male counterpart, Alex Horncliff—a Lambda Chi Alpha brother and president of the Interfraternity Council (IFC)—echoed her sentiments.
“We have to take ownership of our own reputation because the Greek culture is shared across the entire community,” Horncliff said. “Our attitudes towards women and our overall behavior have to be up to par, period.”
Horncliff said that he was “very upset” with the recent string of reported assaults, and added that the question of how to eradicate such behavior was the primary subject of conversation at a system-wide “Greek Summit” which ran Jan. 16 to 18.
“We’re not just twiddling our thumbs and waiting for probation to end; things are happening,” Horncliff said. “Coming out of the summit, the IFC has prepared a draft of a 10-page action plan addressing how to stop sexual assault. We plan to submit that to the administration on Feb. 1 and roll it out immediately.
“The strongest way to combat situations like this is unrelenting optimism,” he concluded. “I think sexual assault absolutely can be stopped, and I want to keep trying no matter what. It makes no sense to give up.”
At this relatively early stage, finite details of such plans are either confidential or not fully fleshed out, and it remains to be seen if they’ll pass muster with Cal Poly’s administration. However, Henry and Horncliff both said they are optimistic the Greek community can reverse the recent sexual assault trend.
When asked similar questions, Vice President of Student Affairs Humphrey emphasized that the administration is taking the issue of sexual assault seriously.
“It is apparent that a number of our organizations are not following the approved plans or risk management policies, and given that sexual assaults are being reported as a result, we feel it is our ethical and professional responsibility to pause social events,” Humphrey wrote in an email to New Times. “Pausing social events is an important step because it sends a strong signal throughout our community that aspects of social event behavior are not acceptable.”
In terms of what changes his office is looking for from Greek leaders, Humphrey was elusive on details, but said that increasing student health and safety is paramount. He added that the stated 30-day period is “only a time frame for us to begin reviewing,” and that the true time needed to bring about change “may take more than a month.”
In light of the fact that Cal Poly’s Greek system was placed on an identical probation last year while a party registration system was hammered out, New Times asked Humphrey via email if he had any other disciplinary actions in his tool kit besides probation, and questioned if it might be appropriate to enact more serious punishment given the gravity of the current sexual assault problem.
“My statement at this time is one that I am comfortable making,” Humphrey responded, referring to his previous email about probation sending a “strong signal.”
When asked about how Cal Poly handles sexual assault, RISE’s Adams said that the Greek probation is a “step in the right direction” and that the university has made “huge strides,” but added she still desires more change—as the work of victim advocacy and public education is far from over.
“RISE has been doing this work for 35 years, and there’s always been a lot of rape at Cal Poly,” Adams said. “While we need to address the small number of rapists out there, more importantly we need to address the majority of our culture that is complicit and allows sexual assault to happen.
“We have these victims who were willing to come forward and report to thank for this opportunity,” she added. “We have a cultural norm of violence against women in this country, and that has to change.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at email@example.com.