An audit of Hesston College found systemic failure to adequately address sexual abuse and harassment complaints. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
HESSTON — An audit of a small Mennonite college in rural Kansas has found systemic failings, with sexual abuse reporters pressured to meet their abusers face-to-face and “forgive and forget” the abuse.
In November 2022, Hesston College commissioned international law firm Cozen O’Connor to review legal compliance and make recommendations about the college’s policies, procedures and practices addressing sexual and gender-based harassment and violence under Title IX and the Clery Act.
In the 64-page report released in April, reviewers found frequent Title IX violations, including cases in which administrators failed to adequately respond to reports and failed to give the person reporting abuse access to support and resources. The audit also found evidence of mishandled sexual harassment and violence complaint resolutions, including cases in which the survivor had to meet face-to-face with their abuser without necessary safeguards.
Due to the small size and religious nature of the campus community, which has about 325 students, the audit posited that reporting was made more difficult. Several report filers said the college’s religious values put pressure on survivors to forgive those accused of abuse.
The audit found the college had a common practice of having abuse survivors meet with their abusers for a discussion about their experiences and what they need to do to move forward.
“If you are the victim, the burden is placed on you to forgive and forget. It is made to sound like it’s your responsibility to reconcile the behavior,” one report filer said.
Another person said they weren’t allowed to emotionally process the situation.
“A lot of what I experienced with admin and professors was the faith portion,” the interviewee said. “They 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.”
Students told the auditors that they felt blamed by college administrators for sexual harassment, including employees telling students not to go out late or wear “flashy things.”
Auditors reported that only three out of the 35 Title IX cases they reviewed were formally investigated and they found many examples of institutional responses that didn’t meet Title IX legal requirements.
Advocacy groups such as Into Account have said sexual misconduct and assault has been a systemic issue at Hesston since the college’s beginning. Daniel Bender, the Mennonite bishop who founded the college in 1909, confessed to repeatedly sexually abusing his daughter.
The November review was the result of multiple student complaints about mishandled sexual misconduct reports and a student campus protest demanding action. Students also demanded that Bender’s portrait be removed from the college’s administration building, or a plaque be put up explaining his abuse. The portrait was removed months later, following the audit’s publication.
The audit recommended more professional training, student outreach and oversight of the campus Title IX office, along with changing the college’s approach to having survivors reconcile with their abusers.
“The experiences we heard as part of this review — of students being further traumatized by pressure to engage in swift reconciliation efforts, or not reporting at all because they do not want to be prematurely asked to offer forgiveness — reflects the challenges of using a forgiveness-based reconciliation approach in a manner that is not nuanced, informed by the law, or steeped in an understanding of the dynamics of sexual and interpersonal violence and trauma,” the audit read.
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