Title IX audit of Kansas college shows pressure to forgive abusers, reconcile

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Hesston College, a small Mennonite institution, has history of sexual abuse and harassment cases

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 met 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. 

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Resources for survivors

If you have experienced sexual violence or trauma, please seek the help that’s right for you. There are many options available, and you don’t have to file a police report if you don’t want to.

Get 24/7 help in Lawrence: The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center
  • Call 785-843-8985 to reach an advocate, 24/7. (Consider saving that number in your phone in case you or someone you know ever needs it.)
  • After an assault: What are my options? Check this page for detailed information about
    • talking to an advocate,
    • going to the hospital,
    • making a police report,
    • and/or talking to a counselor or therapist.
  • On campus? Check this page for specific resources for the University of Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, Baker University, Ottawa University and more.
Resources on KU’s campus:
  • Contact the CARE (Campus Assistance, Resource, and Education) Coordinator: Students can make an appointment by email, care@ku.edu, or by calling 785-864-9255. It’s free, confidential and voluntary to talk with the CARE Coordinator. All genders welcome. Read more here.
  • Find more KU campus resources at this link. Specific information about sexual assault exams can be found here.
  • Direct message KU CARE Sisters on Instagram. You don’t need to be affiliated with Greek Life to reach out and/or receive assistance. (Note: CARE Sisters provide peer support and education, but this is not a 24/7 service like others listed here.)
Domestic violence situations: The Willow Domestic Violence Center
  • Reach the Willow for help 24/7 at 785-843-3333.
  • Find more resources on the Willow’s website at this link.
More resources
  • StrongHearts Native Helpline: Call 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) for 24/7 safe, confidential and anonymous domestic and sexual violence support for Native Americans and Alaska Natives that is culturally appropriate.
  • National hotline: Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), text “START” to 88788, and/or visit thehotline.org to chat and learn more, 24/7.

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