Hesston College officials vow to ‘earn back trust’ after sexual violence report

Hesston College students protested the college’s handling of sexual violence reports on Dec. 2. — Paul Schrag/AW Hesston College students protested the college’s handling of sexual violence reports on Dec. 2. — Paul Schrag/AW

Hesston College outlined areas in which it needs to improve its response to reports of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence following the April 14 release of a report by an external team of investigators.

“We found reading this report and its descriptions of how we have failed our students painful, humbling and saddening,” wrote President Joseph Manickam and board chair Ken Ka­bira in a letter to the Hesston College community. “To our students who were impacted by the college’s failures, we extend our own and the college’s most sincere apologies. We commit to doing all that we can to earn back your trust in the college.”

The report by Cozen O’Connor Institutional Response Group, attorneys who investigate sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, said the college failed to consistently respond to reports of harassment and violence, failed to provide complainants with consistent care and information, and improperly used resolutions focused on forgiveness to resolve student concerns.

Cozen O’Connor held group listening sessions and interviews with more than 50 people, including current and former students, staff, faculty and survivor advocates. The group reviewed all records of reports of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence made to Title IX coordinator Monica Miller from the 2017-18 through 2021-22 academic years, as well as records of reports and resolutions of cases made since 2019 to vice president of student life Deb Roth, among other documents and correspondence. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex.

Miller, who also served as director of human resources, worked at Hesston from 2017 to 2022 and did not agree to be interviewed. Roth, who was not involved in discipline issues during the investigative review, resigned on April 12.

While much of the report focused on how Miller and Roth handled cases, it addressed other staff as well.

“We observed an across-the-board failure by individuals responsible for forwarding reports to the Title IX coordinator,” reported the investigation. “Specifically, we learned of numerous instances where resident directors, faculty, staff and senior leadership did not forward reports of sexual and gender-based harassment or violence to the Title IX coordinator.”

Campus climate surveys found 7% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted while a student in 2016, followed by 4% of respondents in 2019 and 2022.

Investigators did not try to determine the validity of allegations but whether the college carried out its legal requirements when responding to reports of harassment and violence.

“We find that Hesston College generally complies with the core legal requirements under the Title IX regulations related to the notice of nondiscrimination, written grievance procedures and designation of a Title IX coordinator,” wrote investigators. “However, based on our review of case files, as well as feedback received through our interviews, the college has had significant challenges in implementing an effective Title IX program that demonstrates care for its community members and that takes sufficient steps under the law to respond to reports of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

Of the 35 Title IX case files reviewed, only three proceeded to a formal investigation.

“We heard about and reviewed numerous examples of institutional response that fell short of the Title IX obligation to respond to a report in a reasonable and legally compliant manner,” reported investigators.

The report’s release came more than six months after President Manickam announced plans for an external audit of procedures on Sept. 30, following complaints about reports of sexual violence publicized Sept. 26 by Into Account, an Anabaptist-led nonprofit that advocates for survivors of abuse. The college announced Cozen O’Connor’s involvement on Nov. 18.

On Dec. 2, dozens of students held a protest on campus (AW, Dec. 23). Student leaders presented a list of 12 demands urging college officials to hold perpetrators accountable, support survivors, hire additional staff and train existing staff to listen sympathetically and respond appropriately.

As of April 14, the college had responded to several of the demands, committing to hiring a full-time counselor for the next academic year to replace the current half-time counselor, and hiring an additional residential director and naming a female faculty member as a non-mandatory reporter. A portrait of Daniel Bender, college president from 1909 to 1930, was removed from a prominent location, to be replaced with a plaque explaining his sexual misconduct. The college will hire an additional resident director and remove the vice president of student life from policy as an alternate person who can receive Title IX reports — a situation that clouded understandings of procedures.

“We must increase the resources invested in training and supporting administrators, staff and faculty to prevent sexual harassment and assault; to meet the full requirements of Title IX reporting and resolution obligations; and to support survivors with compassion,” wrote Manickam and Kabira in their letter, noting the college will work with Cozen O’Connor to initiate restorative outreach to those affected by the college’s insufficient actions and will ensure all staff involved in the response to a report have sufficient training and support.

The report detailed how the college’s Mennonite affiliation and history impacted community members’ trust in the college’s ability and willingness to respond effectively to alleged sexual abuse: Priorities of reconciliation and forgiveness can create deterrents to reporting sexual violence. Suspicion of external authorities creates barriers, and traditionally patriarchal backgrounds cause heightened vulnerability for females.

“The qualities that draw students to a smaller sized school (e.g., everyone knows everyone, close relationships, tight-knit communities) are the same qualities that may inhibit reporting and impact effective implementation of Title IX,” reported Cozen O’Connor.

Students said in interviews that they felt forced into face-to-face meetings regarding dating violence and sexual assault when they did not feel safe. Investigators could find no documentation that complainants were informed of their Title IX resolution options amid the college’s informal resolution processes.

The report quoted a student as saying college staff “really pushed to forgive. That is really sore for me. I was never allowed to be mad. They pushed so much forgiveness. I was told about counseling options, but I was never followed up with again. I was under suicide watch, but no one came to check on me.”

Manickam and Kabira addressed restorative justice in their statement.

“While the principle and practice of restorative justice resolution are fundamental to many aspects of our campus life, we must recognize that it may only be used to address matters of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence when both parties voluntarily agree to do so after being fully informed of all procedural and resolution options,” they wrote, although a separate college web page more clearly states restorative conflict resolution has no place in addressing gender-based harassment and violence (hesston.edu/2023-external-title-ix-review-faqs). “When used in such matters, there must be a consistent, clear and well-guided process led by individuals with thorough training in restorative justice practice in the context of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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