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Mennonite college students push for expanded focus on sexual abuse

2.22. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 1,192 read

Photo: Students from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.’s, EMU, Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention hosted a Speak EMU event where students were invited to finish sentences like, I stand with survivors because… Photo provided. 

Each Monday night at 9:30, anywhere from 15 to 30 students gather in the basement of Goshen (Ind.) College’s Kulp Hall dormitory for a meeting of the Functional Immediate Response Student Safety Team (FIRSST). Their focus? Discussing ways to address gendered violence on campus and make Goshen a safer community for survivors.

The group was founded in January 2014 through conversations between concerned students about the way sexual assault was talked about and addressed on campus.

“FIRSST started out as a reactionary group to address gaps in prevention, education, and response in relation to sexual assault,” said Erin Bergen, one of the group leaders. “A group of friends began to operate the safety shuttle on campus, where people can call for a ride home, and then we started talking about other gaps in services and safety that could be provided to students.”

The group’s efforts have included trainings with first year students about ways to intervene in potentially dangerous situations and educating students about what constitutes sexual violence and where they can go to report their experiences and seek help.

“Given that this is such a stigmatized issue, it is hard to provide survivors a safer space to talk about it,” said Bergen. “Some of Goshen’s resources are hard to access, which adds another barrier to finding support and reporting.”

Compounding the concerns for FIRSST members are Goshen’s Clery statistics. Passed in 1990, The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose information about any reports of sexual violence and crime on and near their respective campuses. For the last three years, Goshen has reported zeroes in every category; the only Mennonite college campus to do so.

“We all know survivors on this campus and we all know that these things happen on this campus,” said Bergen. “It’s hugely invalidating for survivors on this campus to see those statistics every year.”

FIRSST members have been in regular conversation with Goshen administrators about ways to improve campus reporting procedures and support for survivors. In addition, this fall several FIRSST members attended a conference that provided more information about the broad-reaching impact of the Title IX education act which prohibits discrimination based on sex.

After submitting a list of urgent requests to Goshen’s administration at the end of the fall semester, FIRSST released a public petition in January. The petition listed the five requests for Goshen administrators, including “institutional acknowledgement of the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment” and asking for revisions to Goshen’s website, counseling services and the Title IX coordinator position. To date, the petition has 241 signatures.

On Feb. 4, after meetings with students, the college released a statement about its Title IX commitments, stating, “Goshen College faculty, staff and students are called upon to uphold our Commitment to Community Standards that reflect our character as a Mennonite-Anabaptist liberal arts community of scholarship, teaching, learning and service. Within this framework, we stand with survivors of sexual violence on this campus, those suffering in silence and all who are working to address this important issue in our society. Sexual assault and gender-based violence are far too common on all college campuses, and Goshen College is not and has not been immune to this destructive reality.”

The statement also listed several commitments, including providing options for specialized counseling services; improving resources on the college’s website related to “sex, sexual orientation and sexual assault/harassment”; further Title IX training for faculty and students; a campus Title IX audit and ongoing collaboration with FIRSST. The statement did not specify a particular timeline for these initiatives.

Currently, the college’s Title IX committee is meeting with members of FIRSST weekly to continue the work.

“It’s been good that students and we, the title IX committee, have been very open with each other,” said Ken Newbold, Goshen provost and Title IX coordinator. “We’re collaborating and it feels like a good process. This is a partnership with faculty, students and administration.”

Beth Martin Birky, professor of English and the director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Goshen, is currently serving as a faculty advocate to help think through institutional processes and policies to address sexual abuse. Birky approached administrators about creating this position when she saw a need arise.

“We didn’t have this kind of position at all, and we even had lost some of the informal people who were doing this work and might have served in this role,” said Birky. “I offered this as an interim way to provide resources for students and to explore what kind of things needed to be done long term. My own sense is that these are institutional tasks that need to happen. We need to figure out how to take care of them. It’s not something that we say we’d do in an ideal world. This is part of baseline and federally mandated services that we need to provide.”

The Faculty Advocate role is temporary, but has been built into Birky’s faculty load time until the end of the 2016-2017 school year. In the Feb. 4 statement, Goshen committed to extending the position beyond the 2016-2017 academic year.

Other Mennonite college efforts

Goshen is not the only Mennonite college looking for better ways to address sexual violence and harassment.

At Bluffton (Ohio) University, education about sexual abuse and bystander prevention is a key part of orientation for all first year students. As part of the training, Bluffton’ chief of police, as well as an advocate from Crime Victim Services come to campus to talk about the definitions of abuse and ways they are available to support victims. In addition, Bluffton campus counselors and student life staff review procedures for reporting any abuse and lead students through role plays asking them to imagine how they would intervene in potentially dangerous situations.

Bluffton has also instituted an online training model that every student must complete on sexual abuse prevention and alcohol and vice president for student life, Julie DeGraw, has met with a variety of athletic teams for mandatory sessions watching the movie, Consent is Like Tea, and reminding students of Bluffton’s sexual abuse and harassment policies. Faculty and staff are also receiving regular in person and online trainings.

“Student life people have been talking about this for a long time,” said DeGraw. “We know from statistics that this is more likely to happen in our age group than any other time. If our primary mission is to be educating and helping students figure out how to engage with each other and the world, they have to feel safe and respected.”

DeGraw also acknowledges that it’s possible that better policies might lead to higher Clery statistics and more reports of abuse or harassment.

“For college campuses as a whole, all of us may have higher numbers. As you educate, hopefully more people will feel comfortable coming forward,” she says. “I’m not happy it’s happening. We always want prevention and education so there’s not misconduct in the first place, but I would rather people report it if it does happen.”

Administrators at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and Hesston (Kan.) College say that making their policies and procedures for reporting abuse clear and providing ongoing education are priorities on campus.

At Hesston, administrators have partnered with staff from the Harvey County Safe House, an organization that focuses on advocacy and outreach to survivors of sexual violence. Staff from the Safe House are on campus weekly to meet with students as necessary. At Bethel, first year orientation includes a session on Title IX policies, and there is an all-campus convocation focusing on Title IX and bystander prevention each year.

Students are often a vital part of these efforts, too. At EMU, the Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention started in early 2014. The group works with the on campus counseling department to show films and bring in speakers that educate students about the definitions of sexual violence and bystander prevention.

“There’s a lot of energy behind the group,” said Abby Bush, one of two seniors leading the group. “We’re part of a new wave of advocacy for victims in this way.”

Ongoing challenges

Although Title IX coordinators at all Mennonite colleges report efforts to educate students about sexual abuse and reporting procedures, students still say that victims of abuse face many hurdles.

“There is definitely still a fear of backlash among students and also a sense that students are not totally aware of what constitutes a rape,” said Abby Schrag, a senior who helps lead Femcore, a feminist collective, at Bethel. “There were three reports last school year of rape on campus. It was really upsetting to see how students handled it. There was a lot of victim blaming and people saying, Oh, they’re just making it up.”

Students also acknowledge the ways alcohol plays into the fear of reporting. All Mennonite colleges are dry campuses where alcohol use is prohibited and subject to disciplinary action.

“There’s a correlation between alcohol and sexual assault, but it’s not causal,” said Bergen. “It does add a dimension that makes it hard to talk about on a dry campus among students. Even though most students know they can’t be prosecuted if they report abuse, there’s still a level of shame.”

Administrators at all Mennonite colleges agree there is still work to be done.

“It is imperative that we establish a campus culture in which students feel safe and empowered to seek assistance from a Bethel College employee when a Title IX violation occurs,” said Allison McFarland, Title IX coordinator at Bethel. “At the same time, we must ensure that perpetrating students understand the seriousness and consequences of their actions.”

These efforts on college campuses echo broader denominational conversations and efforts to address and prevent sexual violence. At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, delegates passed the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse and in December, Mennonite Church USA appointed a panel on sexual abuse that will work to carry forward the commitments in the delegate statement. In addition, in June 2015, several individuals formed an Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of SNAP (the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests).

“This is a topic that adversely affects women, people of color, the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) community, voices that have been historically silenced by the Mennonite community,” said Bergen. “This is a great opportunity for the wider Mennonite church to see these issues as ones that need to be addressed and start listening to different voices.”

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