Fresno State students and community members took to campus Saturday to support survivors of sexual abuse and harassment following a six-month investigation into former Fresno State president Joseph Castro published by USA Today Thursday.
The investigation showcased the intentional oversight of sexual harassment instances while Castro was working at the campus.
Students and administrators are now asking for an investigation, with many demanding Castro step away from his current role as California State University chancellor.
“It is very strenuous as students ― you have to worry about money and family, and now potentially be sexually assaulted,” said Uday Patel, a Fresno City College student attending the protest. “But it happens so often, we kind of get numb to it.”
Around 40 protesters showed up to Fresno State Saturday on the corner of Shaw and Cedar avenues. Some said they were there to support friends who had been sexually assaulted, while many said they are survivors themselves.
“I have a lot of friends who go to Fresno State,” Clovis Community College student Andres Tablas-Ayala said. “I found out here, today, they are victims of sexual assault. It really got me thinking about how you may not know what is going on in someone’s life.”
While Frank Lamas was employed by the college as its Vice President for Student Affairs, Castro, the school’s human resources department, and its Title IX office received more than 10 complaints over six years about Lamas’ inappropriate behavior.
“[Title IX is] a way for them to downplay sexual assault and harassment,” said Dr. Kristina Schierenbeck, biological sciences professor at Chico State. “Many incidents, if reported to the police, would actually result in prosecution.”
Lamas was never disciplined, despite two internal investigations finding the senior administrator responsible for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
Dr. Schierenbeck called Title IX “a joke” due to the lack of response from CSU systems.
In Lamas’ case, he signed a settlement agreement for $260,000, allowing him to quietly retire on Dec. 31, 2020, and was offered a letter of recommendation.
Castro overlooked Lamas’ actions over the course of six years. He now oversees all 23 California State University systems, including more than half a million students and employees.
Call to action
Now, many are questioning if anything else happened while Castro was serving as president at Fresno State, while even more are questioning his ability to fulfill his current job duties.
Included in Castro’s responsibilities is ensuring the CSU system’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools, which requires schools to take “prompt and effective steps” to stop sexual harassment.
“What I’ve seen is mostly racial discrimination but it all falls into that same messed up environment that protected Lamas,” said a student who asked to remain anonymous because they are in the middle of a Title IX report themselves. “There are so many men at Fresno State that are protected by their colleagues when students try to speak up. I’ve seen it firsthand.”
Fresno State faculty and students aren’t alone in calling for action.
Senator Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, said she is troubled by the Castro report and called for the system to investigate the chancellor.
“To that end, I call for an immediate and thorough investigation by the CSU Board of Trustees — and any other authority that may have jurisdiction — to determine the accuracy of the information that appears in the USA Today story,” Leyva said in a statement on Friday. “If those allegations are proven to be accurate, I would then ask Chancellor Castro to immediately resign from his position since it would call into clear question his ability to lead the California State University system and its thousands of employees.”
Leyva said the investigation could reveal the need for a Senate Education Committee hearing.
“As the head of the entire CSU system, Chancellor Castro must prioritize the safety of students, staff, faculty and the entire CSU community and — if the information in the story is corroborated through an outside investigation — it would be evident that his ongoing behavior and favoritism further endangered the safety and well-being of countless students and others, possibly causing Title IX violations by the university,” her statement said.
Chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Jose Medina, D-Riverside, also called for the CSU Board of Trustees to immediately investigate Friday.
“I was greatly troubled to read the article in USA Today regarding Fresno State University and CSU Chancellor Castro,” Medina’s statement reads. “The California Legislature takes allegations and investigations of sexual misconduct very seriously and situations like this must be handled with the utmost care and consideration for survivors. I share the call to action of others and I am formally asking the CSU Board of Trustees to conduct a thorough investigation into this matter immediately.”
Castro responded to the USA Today investigation Friday night, reaffirming his commitment to all CSU systems.
“I am sorry for the pain caused by Dr. Lamas’ abhorrent behavior and actions, and for any additional hurt and understandable frustration brought about by aspects of the mediated settlement agreement,” the open letter reads. “I want you – the entire Cal State community – to know that your health, safety and well-being are my first priority. This includes fostering and sustaining an environment free from sexual harassment and all other forms of sexual misconduct.”
More than a statewide problem
Students and faculty say isn’t a one-off incident, nor is it isolated to Fresno State.
“Nobody is doing anything, nobody is being held accountable,” said Liyah Garcia, another Fresno City College student attending the event. “It is infuriating to have this position of power and do nothing or see these people just hurting and to do nothing about it. It made me feel so angry.”
Just last month, San Jose State agreed to a $560,000 settlement of a civil lawsuit filed against the school and its former athletic director, as reported by The Mercury News.
The lawsuit alleges former president, Mary Papazian, engaged in a pattern of covering up sexual misconduct and retaliating against those who reported it.
Papazian announced her plans to retire days after the university reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a sexual harassment case involving an athletic trainer, Scott Shaw, according to EdSource.
Student-athletes said Shaw abused them for years. Papazian served as the college’s president for five years. Castro commended her decision to step away, stating her actions demonstrated a true commitment to the university.
“President Papazian’s decision to resign from the presidency reflects her compassionate leadership,” stated Chancellor Castro in an official statement from San José State University released on Oct. 7, 2021. “While professionally and personally difficult, this step demonstrates her commitment to the university moving forward.”
Castro is now accused of similar oversight.
Will Castro show the same ‘commitment’ and ‘compassion’ now that he has been ousted?
“People are starting to finally be able to say ‘Me Too,’ and people are finally able to speak up about their experiences and not allow them to happen,” said Rami Zwebti, a Fresno high school student. “We need to show people in power that this bullshit will not be allowed.”
Lauren Jennings covers education and news for the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register. Follow her on Twitter @lolojennings. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.