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SUNY Potsdam student, former professor speak out about sexual harassment, abuse allegations

Updated: Apr. 14, 2021 at 3:00 PM EDT
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POTSDAM, N.Y. (WWNY) - SUNY Potsdam is handling claims of sexual harassment and alleged abuse. We have new details, an email and a response from one professor who has been accused.

An April 3 Facebook post about alleged sexual assault started it.

“It blew up. People were really mad about it. A lot of people were speaking out,” said Jaiden Widdall, SUNY Potsdam sophomore.

Widdall alleged former music professor Raphael Sanders had sexually abused her, had her lay on his office couch, told her they’d do breathing exercises.

“He would put his hands on my chest or I would have to push on his stomach,” she said.

Widdall says he asked her things like: “Have you ever had sex?” It went on for months.

“I felt like I really couldn’t do anything. I felt helpless in the situation,” she said. “It scared me.”

7 News contacted Sanders by phone Wednesday. He didn’t want to be recorded, but said his hands were never on anyone’s breasts and denied ever harassing or abusing anyone.

He acknowledged being accused by students and being forced into retirement.

“I never had a hearing. There’s no due process to this. They called me everything,” he said.

Widdall says it’s not just her word against his. There’s a Christmas Day email from him asking for her cell number just after she had first reported him.

“I saw it as, I don’t know, it was really creepy,” she said.

Dozens of students and alumni have posted accounts of sexual assault at the SUNY Potsdam Secrets Instagram. Wednesday, students made signs to tell their story.

“It’s to show awareness, to show the campus that we are trying to tell you something and you’re ignoring us,” said Mal Brewster, SUNY Potsdam sophomore.

The students say this is just a start. They’re going to go on and on with activities like this, keeping up the pressure.

Last week, SUNY Potsdam President Kristin Esterberg sent out a campus-wide letter pledging to look into it. A key part read: “I want you all to know that I have read your words, and I take them to heart, and at my direction, we will launch an immediate, and thorough investigation of all past reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

The students say their signs will be put up all over campus this weekend.

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