Safety in the spotlight

Campus reels from news of student’s rape

Photo courtesy of iStock

The fall semester was barely underway, students reveling in the first weekend back on campus, when one woman’s drunken evening with friends turned into something out of a horror movie. Having been drinking, she wandered the streets around Fifth and Ivy, searching for her cohorts. That’s when several men approached her and the nightmare began.

The young woman, a 20-year-old Chico State student, remembers bits and pieces of the hours that followed, including allegedly being sexually assaulted after refusing sex with two men. She was eventually able to escape, went outside and flagged down a jogger who called 911.

“She was in Olivehurst and didn’t realize she was in Olivehurst at first—she thought she was still in Chico,” said Shiloh Sorbello, deputy district attorney in Yuba County. One man, 28-year-old Sakhone Phianemanh, is in custody. He pleaded not guilty to four felony counts including rape and forced oral copulation and faces 30 years to life in state prison if convicted. Police are still searching for at least one additional suspect, Sorbello said. The press release from the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department said the victim remembered two assailants.

“I have talked to some students, and some other people across campus. It’s a horrible and just chilling kind of crime to happen to anyone at any time, but to happen right at the beginning of the school year, perhaps it has even more of a chilling effect,” said Joe Wills, director of Public Affairs at Chico State. “I myself have had trouble imagining … my heart goes out to the victim in this case.”

The university issued a statement explaining what happened and offering tools for students both to avoid similar situations and for dealing with the aftermath. Based on online reactions to this case, rape culture has prevailed thus far, with comments largely casting blame on the victim for drinking too much. One of the charges Phianemanh faces, however, is having sex with a person who is too intoxicated to consent.

“There will be more communication with students and some programs or trainings to help ensure they’re aware of their options and resources,” Wills said of what’s next. Among the messages he hopes to send to students are improving bystander action—helping strangers when they appear to be in harm’s way—and “not blaming the victim. We’ll be working on changing attitudes about who may or may not be at fault.”

The university is also looking to improve coordination between the campus police and the Chico Police Department. “Law enforcement is an important aspect of it, too,” Wills said. Last year in Chico, there were 51 reported sexual assaults. The latest data for campus is from 2013, when five rapes were reported. (Because the rape in this case occurred in Olivehurst, it will not be counted in Chico’s or Chico State’s statistics for 2015.)

Wills points students who are victims—or who fear they may become victims—to campus resources such as the counseling center and University Police Department. Currently, Safe Place, a program designed to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and stalking, is closed pending the hiring of a new staff leader.

Phianemanh is expected back in court in Yuba County Sept. 9 for a prehearing conference.