SUNY Potsdam Title IX Task Force reviewing how sexual misconduct cases are handled | Education | #Education

POTSDAM — In the 10 days since SUNY Potsdam students popped a bubble surrounding campus sexual violence and harassment, a Title IX Task Force has begun its work.

Headed by Interim Chief Diversity Officer Claudia J. Ford, also an environmental studies professor, the Task Force met once all together last week, and four subcommittees met this week. Ms. Ford briefed the SUNY Potsdam College Council on the Task Force’s emerging work Friday morning during the final council meeting of the academic year.

The group of faculty and administrators is charged with reviewing the processes — particularly associated with Title IX — policies, resources and training related to sexual violence, harassment and stalking. Subcommittees are focusing on student support, investigations, networking and training. The full Task Force is planning to meet again April 23, then clarify how students can become directly involved with the group.

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

In an interview Friday, Ms. Ford said students and alumni deserve prudent action, which is involving studio safety upgrades to the Crane School of Music, a “quality-control audit” of how Title IX cases have been reviewed and a search for a full-time Title IX officer.

A plan to install windows on the doors of all Crane faculty offices, studios and practice rooms was paused as the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off last year, Ms. Ford said. Installation, according to a Tuesday statement from the university, will begin this summer.

Jaiden N. Widdall, who previously spoke to the Times, 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 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. “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.

The audit of historic and current Title IX practices and other reporting avenues is to be completed with input from Kathryn E. Agar, part-time Title IX investigator; Eric D. Duchscherer, part-time Title IX investigator; Melissa E. Proulx, director of human Resources; and Patrick L. Meldrim, director of student conduct and community standards.

The Task Force can’t legally review the content of specific Title IX cases, as it does not have authority to break confidentiality outside the Title IX realm. Instead, Ms. Ford said, reviews will be based on how much time it takes to mediate cases, what kinds of resources are sought by those reporting to Title IX and how SUNY policy and federal law compare to the university’s procedures.

Understanding Title IX, Ms. Ford said, is a persistent challenge in part because of changing federal regulations.

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.

Ms. Ford said without a full-time Title IX officer, dedicated solely to investigating cases, the university is at a disadvantage. When the position was vacated more than a year ago, two administrators stepped in.

“But that’s never ideal, and it’s a lot of pressure on the people doing it,” Ms. Ford said.

A program assistant in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Ms. Agar has overseen student-reported cases, while Mr. Duchscherer, interim dean of students, has handled employee-reported cases.

As of this week, SUNY has greenlighted Potsdam Chief of Staff Nicole A. Feml to chair an “immediate national search” to fill the full-time position.

Noting faculty members are survivors themselves, Ms. Ford said: “We all really feel like we need to center the needs of the students.”

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