More speak up about campus sexual misconduct

Displaying signs to passing traffic, SUNY Potsdam demonstrators sit on the sidewalk on Pierrepont Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, in protest of campus sexual misconduct. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

POTSDAM — Pervasive and painful are the simplest words to describe sexual violence and sexual harassment, but the history and reality of survivorship is complicated and sometimes unspeakable.

The words can come.

Marching from the Ives Park intersection toward SUNY Potsdam’s Satterlee Hall on Wednesday, about 30 people rallied against campus sexual misconduct.

Allegations against SUNY Potsdam faculty members surfaced over the weekend on social media platforms — both Facebook and Instagram — and concerns about the university’s Title IX procedure drew students downtown and dozens more to simultaneous virtual forums.

Sexual violence — including rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, unwanted touching, and forcible touching — is a crime everywhere in the United States. Sexual violence and sexual harassment are defined differently under federal employment, education and criminal law, though, and sexual harassment alone is most often a civil offense.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances or attention, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment. If a college professor were to touch a student without consent, for example, the offense could fall under both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault and be prosecuted civilly and criminally.

Cases involving minors are more specific altogether, and every state legally recognizes children are unable to give informed consent, not being fully aware of risks and consequences associated with sexual activity. Consenting ages under state laws vary between 16 and 18 years old. In New York, the age threshold for consent is 17.

In higher education, sexual violence and harassment inside the bubble of residential college campuses is a prevailing problem.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports 24% of undergraduate women and 6.8% of undergraduate men experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Among all college students, including graduate students, roughly 13% indicate they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted.

Those figures are based on 2019 survey data compiled by the Association of American Universities, but “sexual violence is notoriously difficult to measure, and there is no single source of data that provides a complete picture of the crime,” according to RAINN.

A SUNY Potsdam junior in the Crane School of Music told the Times about an incident from just last week. The Times has agreed to grant the woman anonymity due to the nature of her claims.

Kate (not her real name) said she received a phone call at 6:27 p.m. March 31, from a number she didn’t recognize, 315-267-3067. The number is listed on the SUNY Potsdam website as the fax number for the Office of Financial Aid in Raymond Hall. With the correct setup, a fax machine could dial out to a phone line, though it is unclear whether the fax number was “spoofed” by the caller to conceal the real number.

Kate remembers the caller telling her she has “such soft skin,” and that they wanted to touch her body. The call concluded with: “I know where you live, I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

When she called University Police, Kate said she was told to let the department know “if anything happens tomorrow.”

She thought, “I guess I’ll just wait for something to happen, then.” Concerned someone may be stalking her, Kate said she stayed home from her next in-person class, feeling shaken and defeated.

Of several reporting options — University Police and municipal law enforcement are others — a campus Title IX office is required to have established procedures for reporting sex-based misconduct, including sexual violence and harassment.

The State University of New York has a system-wide policy for preventing and responding to what it categorizes all together as “sexual harassment” — acts involving sexually natured gestures and remarks, as well as any physical acts of a sexual nature, and much more. Survivor-driven reporting is foundational to the SUNY policy, meaning a victim chooses when and how a report is made or support is sought.

Based on state guidance, SUNY Potsdam has its own policies that outline grievance procedures for both formal and informal complaints through Title IX.

Title IX is a provision of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, that broadly prohibits sex-based exclusion or discrimination in any education setting that receives federal financial support, and more specifically gives authority to education institutions to investigate alleged violations of the statute.

Title IX was last updated in 2020, in an effort headed by former Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos. The update, which took effect in August, scaled back Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment, a change President Joseph R. Biden’s administration pledged to analyze for potential reversal within 100 days of a March 8 executive order.

The narrowed definition is now less expansive than the workplace sexual harassment protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Only what falls within the scope of campus-related sexual misconduct is covered under Title IX, but like most universities, SUNY Potsdam has additional policies that enable separate misconduct procedures. Cases falling outside Title IX can be processed through the university’s code of conduct, the Student Community Rights and Responsibilities.

With the passage of the state’s Enough is Enough law in 2015, New York campuses are now required to collect data on sexual violence and stalking complaints made by students through Title IX procedures.

Among the state’s more than 240 colleges and universities, SUNY Potsdam ranked in the top 35 for the most reports made during the 2018 calendar year, according to the state Education Department. Of the university’s 32 total incidents, 16 are alleged to have occurred on campus, and six were referred to law enforcement.

Twelve miles south at SUNY Canton, 39 incidents were reported that year. St. Lawrence University logged 23, and Clarkson University logged 12. Cornell University in Ithaca reported the most — 282.

“The absolute last thing we would ever want as a campus is for someone not to report a troubling incident, or not to seek out the help that they need,” a Wednesday statement issued by President Kristin G. Esterberg reads. “It is vital that you know that all allegations of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault are thoroughly investigated and addressed, following all federal and state law and SUNY policy.”

But trust in that process has been broken, according to Kate. She said the unwritten, yet indoctrinated, reporting culture among students is: “What’s the point?”

Following the weekend’s initial student and alumni posts, Kate created an Instagram page where campus survivors can tell their stories, named or anonymously. That page, @exposing_potsdam, was removed by Instagram, but a second account, a private group with more than 1,200 followers, has since opened.

More than 40 people on the page have stated “me too.” Additional posts detail campus racism, ableism, allegations of malpractice at Student Health Services and allegations of University Police violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

“I cannot believe the amount of people that came out about sexual harassment and assault on campus,” Kate said. “I expected some stories, but I cannot believe how many people actually reached out. I would reply to one person, and then three more would send me a message.”

She added: “And that’s just the people comfortable with speaking out. How far does the rabbit hole go? What are we missing?”

The university, with Student Conduct and Community Standards administrators and supportive faculty, hosted virtual sessions Wednesday, painful recollection resonating among participants.

“So many people said, ‘I wasn’t going to say anything, but hearing everybody speak up made me want to speak up,’” Kate said.

More than a decade ago, Tarana J. Burke founded the Me Too movement that has further evolved and grown since the 2017 hashtag -MeToo went viral on social media, millions using the tag to own survivorship and share stories of sexual violence and harassment.

An activist and sexual violence survivor herself, Ms. Burke created a MySpace page in 2006 to establish a hub for Just Be, her health and wellness organization focused on young women of color. At the time, she worked in Selma, Ala., co-founding Just Be, which eventually seeded Me Too.

Ms. Burke spoke at Chautauqua Institution in western New York in 2019, describing the movement’s history and sharing what she’s learned about her survival, systems that enable the persistence of sexual violence and a lifelong healing process.

“When you harm a person, you have to be accountable for the harm that you’ve caused,” Ms. Burke said at Chautauqua Institution’s amphitheater. “There has to be an examination of where these things come from, and if we don’t make space for it, we will never get to a different model of it.”

During a 2017 visit to Hofstra University on Long Island, Ms. Burke said “don’t beg for your dignity and your humanity” when someone says they don’t believe your sexual violence story.

Disbelief has long been an initial response to women sharing experiences of sexual harassment, assault or ongoing abuse, regardless of what the experience may have involved — workplace discrimination, family sexual abuse, rape, forcible touching, an unwanted hug or gesture, or lewd comments.

Internationally recognized psychotherapist and Psychology Today contributor Beverly J. Engel, based in California, says survivors often choose to keep their experiences to themselves — at least at first, and sometimes for years. The decision can be based on several distinct reasons: out of shame, fear of consequences, having low self-esteem, feeling hopeless or helpless, having a history of being sexually violated, feeling dissociated or experiencing disbelief themselves. So survivors, particularly women, do not always utter “me too.”

SUNY Potsdam campus incidents are typically addressed with an apology and a list of resources, according to Kate. To honor the university's founding annually, and on other occasions, free cupcakes from Becky’s Place, a campus dining option, are sometimes offered to students. In an especially rough 2020, Kate said, the offering felt superficial.

“We can’t fold, we can’t fold our cards,” Kate said. “We want change, not cupcakes.”

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