Students report abuse by faculty

Demonstrators begin their march Wednesday along Potsdam’s Main Street, heading toward SUNY Potsdam’s campus in protest of sexual misconduct. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment.

POTSDAM — By the time SUNY Potsdam students concluded hours of protest, Wednesday’s sun had set.

But it wasn’t an ending.

Rally and forum participants — survivors of campus sexual assault and harassment, and their supporters — said they feel unheard, unseen and unsupported by the university.

Marching from the Ives Park intersection toward SUNY Potsdam’s Satterlee Hall, 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.

Two women, two among the unknowable extent of survivors, want to tell their stories.

In her second year studying psychology and wilderness education, Jaiden N. Widdall posted her story to Facebook on April 3, describing being sexually assaulted “multiple times” by now retired Professor Raphael P. Sanders Jr. The university confirmed the Crane School of Music clarinet instructor officially retired on Feb. 18, 2020.

In her post, Ms. Widdall recalled being asked to recline on Mr. Sanders’ office couch for a “breathing exercise,” during which he put his hands on her breasts and asked her questions about her sex life.

“He told me that I am a very beautiful girl but people would like me more if I acted more confident,” Ms. Widdall wrote last weekend. “He told me my boobs sagged when I didn’t stand up straight. He said that I have bigger breasts than most girls my age.”

Ms. Widdall was 18 and a first-year student at the time, alleging such incidents continued between September and December 2019, until she was called into the university’s Title IX office. Someone else had anonymously reported her professor, she was told.

Title IX is a provision of U.S. civil rights law and the Education Amendments of 1972. It 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.

SUNY Potsdam, like all other federally funded higher education institutions and K-12 schools in the country, is required to have established grievance procedures related to sex-based exclusion and discrimination, including cases of sexual harassment and assault.

Title IX and its associated procedural elements were last updated in 2020, in an effort headed by former Secretary of Education Betsy D. DeVos. The update narrowed Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment, a change Joseph R. Biden’s administration pledged to analyze for potential reversal within 100 days of a March 8 executive order.

After Ms. Widdall first met with SUNY Potsdam’s Title IX office, Mr. Sanders requested her personal phone number in a Christmas morning email “with absolutely zero context.”

The two-line email reads, “Merry Christmas! May I please have your cell no.?”

“I continued to have my weekly lessons with him,” Ms. Widdall wrote. “And mind you, I would cry my eyes out in the practice room before and after because I was scared of him.”

Weeks after formally speaking up, she added, “finally something was done” — when school officials found out the professor asked for her phone number.

“Why was nothing done about him touching me physically or asking me sexual questions?” she wondered.

Following her involvement in the Title IX case, Ms. Widdall said the implied expectation was for her to be quiet. Her experience, she said, was treated as “drama” at Crane, by faculty and other students minimizing the manipulative power imbalance between an alleged perpetrator and a victim, and particularly between an educator and a student.

After a few hundred people read Ms. Widdall’s Facebook post, “a flood of others” started to share similar traumas involving fellow students or other faculty members. More than 30 people on a private Instagram page have stated “me too.” Additional posts detail campus racism, ableism and allegations of malpractice at Student Health Services and allegations of University Police violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

When the Times called a mobile, Las Vegas, Nev., number listed online for Mr. Sanders Thursday, requesting to ask a few questions, the person on the other end of the line responded: “He’s not here.”

Several other attempts to reach Mr. Sanders were unsuccessful.

Sarah C. Haller is working to complete her environmental studies and wilderness education programs this year after returning from a medical leave of absence prompted by ongoing sexual harassment at SUNY Potsdam. She joined demonstrators this week, recounting the fall 2019 semester that pushed her to an “absolute breaking point.”

The only woman in a nine-member Rock Climbing 2 class, Ms. Haller reported Professor Mark Simon for using sexual language, adjusting her pelvic climbing harness without consent and once whispering in her ear: “Why was Mickey mad at Minnie?”

His reply: “Because Minnie’s f****** Goofy.”

Ms. Haller said she was also asked by Mr. Simon to remove her outer shirt, a flannel, during a groundwork-only climbing demonstration, though he didn’t have the eight other students — all men — take off their outer shirts that day.

Mr. Simon taught wilderness education courses for more than 20 years before officially leaving his post last year. Like Mr. Sanders, he too retired, on June 16, 2020, after a Title IX case was opened against him. And like Ms. Widdall, Ms. Haller was told to keep quiet about it. A university spokesperson said neither man was placed on paid leave prior to retirement.

“On paper I retired, but basically, basically what happened was that they fired me,” Mr. Simon said. “But it wasn’t over that incident.”

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Simon said a group of students complained to administrators about his conduct, “mostly about grades and that sort of thing.” He added he was fired for misconduct, “and the rationale was really nebulous.”

Safety during field coursework was a concern, and in Ms. Haller’s case, the allegation was “something akin to sexual harassment, which was a fabrication,” he said.

Mr. Simon denied discriminating against Ms. Haller because she is a woman, and said he doesn’t remember telling sexually natured jokes.

Aubrey A. Slaterpryce, a student in the same fall 2019 Rock Climbing 2 class with Ms. Haller, said he witnessed the sexist jokes, the adjustment of Ms. Haller’s harness without her permission and harassment of Ms. Haller based on her “perceived lack of ability” by Mr. Simon.

After the group of students stepped forward, Mr. Simon said he stopped teaching, and his attorney negotiated an exit from the university. He was to receive his salary through the end of his contract, then retire in June 2020.

“That’s what I took rather than trying to fight it,” he said. “I just went away quietly.”

“As angry as I am with the current administration over what happened with me,” Mr. Simon said, “it would be still heartbreaking to see just more really bad publicity with that institution, especially where there isn’t necessarily anything substantial behind it in terms of students not being safe on campus.”

In a statement posted to the university’s website Wednesday afternoon, President Kristin G. Esterberg vowed to launch “an immediate and thorough investigation of all past reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

“This investigation is needed to ensure that every incident reported to the campus was thoroughly reviewed, investigated and if warranted, referred to local law enforcement authorities for further action,” the statement, titled “We Hear You,” reads in part.

Mr. Simon said he’s “not concerned at all about something being uncovered about the harassment.”

“No, absolutely not,” he said.

With stress-induced stomach problems and other medical issues, Ms. Haller has lost weight, lost time on campus and felt like she just lost. But she’s back, finding power in what she did: “I stood up for myself,” she said.

“Other students should know that professors aren’t always right,” she said. “We should all feel comfortable enough to report misconduct.”

If you would like to share your story, email egiacomelli@wdt.net.

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(1) comment

PotsdamSandstone

Very sad. This campus appears to have a history of student/faculty relationships. I wonder how many other professors have harassed students and kept things quiet.

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