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The arrest of a North Newton, Kansas, man has prompted the Bethel College community to evaluate how it responds to allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Ted Mueller, 84, was arrested Oct. 31 at his home on suspected sexual battery. He is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his home on Aug. 1, 2018. He has been charged with two counts of sexual battery and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct, all misdemeanor offenses.
The woman was not a Bethel student, faculty or staff member. Since the arrest other alleged victims, including at least one who was a student at the time, have come forward with reports that stretch back more than a decade.
Bethel stated in a Nov. 5 release that Mueller has never been an employee of the college but did serve as a volunteer data analyst for several years at the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, a Bethel affiliate organization.
Bethel’s statement indicated Mueller was named in separate Title IX incidents in 2016 and 2017 that Bethel categorized as noncriminal and were resolved according to federal guidelines.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law protecting people from discrimination based on sex in educational programs or activities that receive federal financial aid, which Bethel receives through student loans and grants.
“Mueller’s alleged actions on Aug. 1, 2018, were made known to Bethel College Dec. 16, 2018,” Bethel stated. “Consequently, Bethel removed Mueller from his volunteer position at KIPCOR and restricted his access to campus. Bethel has cooperated with local law enforcement agencies in the ongoing criminal investigation.”
After Mueller’s arrest, North Newton police chief Randy Jordan said four more people — including at least one German exchange student at Bethel — have come forward with allegations that stretch back to the 1990s.
Mueller’s wife and daughter have been board members at Bethel, and the couple are members of the President’s Circle, the college’s top donor level.
Pushing for answers
Jason Miller of Newton, a sexual abuse victim advocate who has volunteered as a researcher with the (Mennonite Abuse Prevention) MAP List, has been urging Bethel to say more about what it knew about Mueller and when.
He knows an exchange student who claims Mueller kissed her, possibly forcibly, more than a decade ago. Forcible kissing falls under the definition of sexual battery, but he said Bethel staff who worked with international students did not recognize the alleged action as a crime and did not report it.
“Bethel shouldn’t determine criminality. Concerns should be reported to law enforcement,” Miller said. “Bethel has chosen over and over to decide if something is serious or not.”
A Nov. 4 email from Bethel President Jon Gering to students and staff said Mueller’s alleged actions on Aug. 1, 2018, were shared Dec. 16, 2018, at a congregational meeting at Bethel College Mennonite Church, located at the edge of campus.
“After learning of the allegations, we removed Ted from his volunteer position at KIPCOR and restricted his access to campus, effective on January 4th, 2019,” Gering wrote. “We also demanded that Ted refrain from communicating with international exchange students.”
Miller has emails, written from March through August of this year, from Mueller inviting international students to his home after getting contact information from faculty at Wuppertal University in Germany.
“Ted sent emails for six months before these students arrived,” Miller said. “. . . Ted was the very first contact they had from Bethel for months before anyone else contacted them from Bethel.”
He said most staff members he has spoken with didn’t know Mueller was banned from campus.
When asked about the alleged kissing incident and campus ban, Bethel marketing and communications director Tricia Clark said she could not speak about details related to the college and Mueller because there is an ongoing investigation.
“We believe in the victims of sexual violence,” she said. “We do not tolerate sexual violence in any form.”
In a Nov. 12 email to the Bethel community, Clark wrote: “We are supportive and grateful for the voices of victims of sexual violence speaking up. Victims have spent years in silence and are now empowered to speak out. Bethel is pausing and listening.
“There are no acceptable levels in abuse, and we recognize the pain all sexual violence victims experience. We are here to foster a culture of respect and safety for survivors of sexual violence.
“Bethel is growing along with many institutions, and it can seem like a slow process. However, the security and well-being of Bethel students, faculty and staff is our highest priority.”
‘Long overdue’ actions
The 2016 and 2017 complaints against Mueller were made by Bethel students. Both reported verbal comments in a public setting but did not allege a criminal act. These “were resolved per applicable federal guidelines and best practices in higher education and sexual misconduct resolution,” according to Bethel’s Nov. 5 statement.
The woman who made one of the complaints, Rebecca Schrag of Newton, a 2019 Bethel graduate, has mixed feelings about the college’s response. Now a Bethel graduate, she thinks Bethel did not follow “best practices” in her case.
From people in the Bethel community, she has heard dissatisfaction with Bethel’s responses since Mueller’s arrest. Some think the college has appeared to try harder to defend itself than to support survivors.
Over the past few years, Schrag said, Bethel has improved its practices for sexual assault prevention and response. She cited a bystander training program as an important new initiative. This fall 220 students received the training, which teaches how to intervene to prevent an incident or to stop a situation from getting worse.
“But these actions were long overdue, and situations with Mueller have been accumulating for a long time,” Schrag said.
She hopes the community can learn from a painful situation, which affects more than just the college.
“So much revolves around Bethel, but that’s only one place [Mueller] was,” she said. “The community has to be aware and proactive. The risk is too high not to take every report seriously.”
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