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SUNY Potsdam students urge more visible police presence after alleged sex assault

Watertown Daily Times (NY) - 9/19/2014

Sept. 19--POTSDAM -- Some students at SUNY Potsdam said they were satisfied by the school's response to a reported sexual assault last weekend, but one said she no longer feels safe on campus at night.

Staff and students are working to create programs and classes to increase awareness of the growing problem on American campuses.

SUNY police charged student Wilfrido O. Abreu, 33, with felony third-degree rape Wednesday, after a female visitor reported to campus police Sunday that he had assaulted her in his dormitory room. He is being held in the St. Lawrence County jail, Canton.

It is the third case of alleged sexual assault on a Northern New York college campus this month. A student at Jefferson Community College has been found guilty under that school's judicial system of assault and sexual harassment of two students.

At SUNY Potsdam, "they're making us well aware of what's happening," said Shadie L. Thompson, a senior, who expressed satisfaction with campus police coverage in the days following the alleged assault. She said officers have been asking students about their well-being during what has been a "nerve-wracking" situation.

While she approves of what the college has done, she said she wants the increased police activity to become a daily routine, with special attention paid to weekends.

Kaitlyn R. Blunt, a senior and native of Vermont, does not feel so reassured.

"I'm still scared to walk at night. I won't be out at night," she said, suggesting the campus install more blue light emergency phones like campuses such as the University of Vermont, where they are more numerous.

"You can't walk somewhere without seeing one," she said.

Nathaniel R. Turcotte, a graduate student, commended the college's quick email alert, thankful that the college did not publicize the matter. He thanked SUNY Potsdam President Kristin G. Esterberg for providing information on counseling and reporting sexual abuse in her letter to the campus community.

However, Mr. Turcotte said he thought the college's response was generic, and wanted to know more about the severity of the situation.

"It would've been nice to know a little bit more," he said.

According to SUNY Potsdam Dean of Students William G. "Chip" Morris, incoming students must report on their admissions applications if they have been convicted of a felony, as well as if they have been expelled from another university because of misconduct. According to admissions information provided by the college, students who report convictions or expulsions must fill out a supplemental questionnaire, write an essay on lessons learned from offenses, and provide several documents, all of which are reviewed by an admissions committee according to statewide policy.

The committee then decides if -- and under what conditions -- the student can attend the college.

When asked, Mr. Morris said he did not believe Mr. Abreu's age was a factor in the alleged assault.

He said as a state institution, the college cannot deny a student residence on campus based on age.

Ms. Esterberg, who reiterated that the college is doing everything to end sexual assaults on campus, pointed out that every first-year student undergoes an online course dealing with sexual assault prevention as part of an extended orientation.

She said both students and staff are creating programs and classes to make sure the problem is addressed.

"We intend to be a leader. We already have put in place a great deal of programming in order to help students be aware, in order to create a conversation among students, among faculty and staff," she said.

Included in those activities are Rape Aggression Defense training for campus police, a sexual assault handbook and an awareness program called Be Ethical, Aware and Responsible, run by male student volunteers.

"Our goal is to make sure that we do the work so that any student who has experienced a sexual assault can come forward, can get the services she needs, can get assistance with the criminal justice system if she chooses to pursue, and is aware of all her options," Ms. Esterberg said.


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