In recent years, researchers have studied the ways in which private Christian institutions approach and handle sexual assault cases reported by students, many finding an emphasis on purity that often leads to victim-blaming. A task force at Bethel University hopes to reframe that narrative.
By Emma Harville and Jasmine Johnson
Bethel University philosophy professor Sara Shady estimates since her arrival at Bethel in 2002, between seven to 10 students have confided in her that they were victims of sexual assault.
So when a student entered her office last spring and told Shady she was raped, it wasn’t the first time she’d heard those words. And Shady knew it also wouldn’t be the last.
“I was just thinking, ‘We can do better. We can do better at the prevention side. We can do better at how we help students navigate the process, and we can do better in our communication as a community around this,’” Shady said. “I just kind of hit a breaking point, like, ‘I’m not just going to sit around and wait for things to get better.’”
In December 2019, three Bethel students accused a former Bethel student of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ramsey County District Court. The story, based on court filings, also appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and newspapers and websites across the country.
Chief Enrollment and Marketing Officer Michael Vedders said Bethel learned of the criminal charges through an inquiry from a reporter in December 2019. Vedders said he was unable to comment on whether any of the three sexual assault cases were reported to the university before law enforcement got involved, citing privacy laws but not specifying which one.
The Clarion interviewed two of the three students who reported sexual assault to Ramsey County District Court. The students originally filed complaints with Bethel but then filed reports with the police as well. Both victims said they couldn’t openly comment because their cases are ongoing.
One student who accused a different Bethel student of sexual assault was willing to share her story with The Clarion, but after a year of contact with the newspaper, she decided to remove herself from the article.
The Clarion reviewed the individual’s original decision letter, appeal letter and the final decision letter written by President Jay Barnes.
The Clarion reached out to 11 Bethel administrators who were involved with the sexual assault reporting case, but they each refused to comment and referred all inquiries to Bethel Title IX Coordinator and Compliance Officer Cara Wald.
“It is important to note that the circumstances surrounding each case are unique,” Wald said in an email response to The Clarion’s collective list of questions.
The Clarion also interviewed national experts who have completed research on sexual assault at Christian universities as well as members of Bethel’s Sexual Assault Working Group, a task force Shady started last spring to better equip the community in handling sexual misconduct.
Each outlined flaws they see in the current system and ways they want to implement change in both their own communities and the Christian higher education system as a whole.
When a student, who will be called Jane, reported her sexual assault to Bethel University during the 2018-2019 school year, she expected the university to support her.
What she experienced instead, she said, was a legalistic process that felt more cold than comforting.
Jane is not alone. Other students, especially those who attend Christian institutions, expect Title IX investigators to advocate for them once they file a sexual assault complaint. And these students say they feel betrayed when that doesn’t happen.
Investigative journalist Jessica Luther, who helped break the story about a 2015 Baylor University rape scandal with Dan Solomon for Deadspin, says victims often told her the moment of betrayal can be almost as painful as the assault itself.
“Maybe the first time you interact with [Title IX], they’re super nice and they want to help you,” Luther told The Clarion in a video interview. “But then they start to comply [with the law]. It’s like a checklist of all the things they have to run down. It sets up people’s expectations to not be met.”
This divide between a victim’s expectation and reality is known as institutional betrayal, originally termed by University of Oregon Psychology Professor Jennifer Freyd. According to Freyd, institutional betrayal occurs when a school or workplace causes psychological and physical harm to the people who depend on that institution.
“The desire to protect the brand, protect the reputation [and] to not be accountable and responsible – those are pretty powerful forces that propel denial,” Freyd said in a 2018 podcast.
Wald says she meets with students to learn more about what happened and review both Bethel’s sexual misconduct policy and the complaint process with them, the goal being to “provide [victims] information, options and support.”
A 2018 study by two University of Arkansas researchers concluded that Title IX coordinators have one of the hardest jobs with some of the highest turnover rates in the country due to ever-changing federal policies, insurmountable pressure of potential lawsuits and the emotional toll of handling traumatic cases.
An online survey of 692 Title IX coordinators across 42 states found 67 percent indicated their Title IX role was part-time and that they had other responsibilities at the university. Additionally, 65 percent had less than three years of experience. Wald was appointed by President Jay Barnes in 2014.
Data showed it’s common for schools to delegate Title IX responsibilities to pre-existing diversity/inclusion or human resources employees. At Bethel, Chief Human Resources and Strategy Officer Wald, who is also a cabinet member, serves as the Title IX coordinator. She’s assisted by Title IX Compliance Specialist Shaune Younkers.
“I think sometimes it’s just due to the financial resources of the university, as to why a person holds two positions like that,” said Kenyora Parham, director of a survivor advocacy organization called End Rape on Campus. “But we’re also noticing that a lot of Title IX coordinators may be holding a lot more cases than they can chew, which is unfair to the Title IX coordinator and most importantly unfair to those who are reporting.”
The training requirements for a Title IX coordinator are ambiguous – research done by two Christian university professors in 2016 found a majority of Title IX coordinators they interviewed received a couple of days to a couple of weeks of annual training.
“If you look at our study, [Title IX investigators] are woefully unprepared,” Azusa Pacific University equity and justice researcher Alexander Jun said in an interview with The Clarion. “I’m afraid this is representative of maybe a bigger systemic issue.”
At Bethel, Wald says her team “stay[s] current on legislation and its interpretation” by attending webinars and serving on the Ramsey County Sexual Assault Protocol team, which is made up of all Title IX offices in the county.
“Over 100 administrators, first responders, student life staff, confidential resources, grievance officers, and coaches receive regular trauma-informed sexual misconduct training,” Wald added.
Like Bethel, most universities provide free counseling services for victims of sexual assault. Jun argues these resources should be extended to Title IX coordinators as well, suggesting there is a lack of follow-up and self-care offered to those who hear victims’ stories regularly and experience secondary trauma.
If such resources are not available, Jun says, what ensues is “compassion fatigue,” or just “sheer exhaustion in becoming bitter, jaded or unable to hear.”
Wald says she feels “well supported” by Bethel leadership, including by President Barnes.
“I think support services are vitally important to those involved in the investigative process as well,” Wald said. “While not specified in our policy, I do facilitate the availability of these resources as needed.”
‘It’s the wrong motivation’: Purity and public scrutiny
Wald says her position requires a “deep understanding of Title IX legislation and [Bethel’s] policy” and that “prior experience with compliance and other legal concepts such as employment law is essential.”
Although the Title IX investigator’s job is designed to ensure federal law is upheld, Jun says, in practice, the objective lens is often blurred with implicit biases at religious institutions.
“The hard part for me is this whole concept of objectivity – how is that even possible?” Jun said. “If your natural disposition when walking into a reporting situation is to blame the victim and say ‘Why were you in there?’ and ‘What were you wearing?’ and ‘Why were you drinking?’ The disposition is toward defending a nice young Christian man.”
Under Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together, sexual intercourse is reserved for “monogamous, heterosexual marriage” and drinking is prohibited for all CAS students. Adhering to such guidelines, the Covenant states, will allow students to “hold each other accountable to biblical standards.”
Jun argues such biblical standards can sometimes create an environment in which schools focus too much on the sex part of sexual violence and not enough on the violence part.
“The first question we get hung up on is the sex, and the [victim’s] vulnerability is multiplied because it’s just not getting to the issue. It’s almost like a chastisement,” Jun said. “‘Why were you alone?’ The very premise of the question forces it back on the victim.”
Baylor, the private Baptist Christian university in Waco, Texas, where Luther reported on a series of alleged rapes, has an undergrad enrollment of more than 14,000 students and like Bethel, explicitly states that “sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.”
In her reporting, Luther said she found that for many Baylor students, the first time anyone had even talked to them about sex was when a Title IX person stood in front of them and said “Don’t sexually assault someone.”
“What does that even mean, when someone tells you not to sexually assault when you don’t even really have a foundation of good sex ed on which to build that?” Luther said.
Although Bethel explains the term “consent” in its Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures resource and includes it in its annual Moodle training, many other conservative Christian colleges have been wary of including the word in their vocabulary given students aren’t supposed to be having sex in the first place, Luther said.
“What happens at the federal level seems to get missed by a lot of Christian institutions,” Jun said. “We feel like we’re exempt from certain things – we saw this with transgender bathrooms; we saw this with equality in the workplace with LGBTQ folks and, then of course, when we talk about sexual violence.”
As of now, the extent of Bethel’s sexual assault training for faculty and students consists of a yearly 45-minute series of training videos on Moodle and a 10-question quiz. Students may continue to access this training even after completion in order to “revisit important information and resources.”
There are no direct consequences for students who don’t complete the training, although Wald says there has been discussion of issuing fines in the past. However, the NCAA Board of Governors Policy on Campus Sexual Violence prohibits Bethel athletes from practicing or participating in games if they do not complete the training, which Wald says is enforced.
“In my mind, [the training] is a little dumb,” Jane said. “In the first place, it doesn’t teach you how to handle any of it. Everything they say will happen doesn’t happen. [But] you’ve got to check the box off. That’s kind of how Bethel treats it, too.”
After her case was resolved, the university told Jane she wouldn’t need to watch those videos anymore.
“We recognize that completing this annual training can be a triggering event,” Wald said. “As such, those who have reported sexual assault to our office are exempt from completing this training.”
The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities to report annual statistics on the number of crime reports it receives, whether completed, initiated or ongoing. In accordance with this act, Bethel reported no rapes in 2016 and two rapes for both 2017 and 2018 in its 2019 Annual Security Report.
The Clarion, however, interviewed three victims who reported sexual assaults to Bethel in 2018. When asked to clarify the discrepancy between these three victims and the two on the annual report, Wald said only reports of alleged activity on-campus are reported.
“The Clery Act requires us to notify the community if there is an immediate or ongoing threat to those in the community,” Wald said. “Depending on the circumstances, a reported sexual assault may or may not trigger a campus notification.”
Luther said private schools are privileged in that they have ways to protect themselves from public scrutiny. While Title IX is federal law and therefore affects both public and private institutions, she says private schools have the liberty to not explain the decisions they make as long as they comply with the law and provide annual crime statistics.
“They understand they have to deal with it, but they don’t have to tell you very much about it,” Luther said.
Private universities want to avoid the kind of publicity that will prompt parents and students to ask, “Is this school really upholding the values it says it does?” Parham said.
And they certainly don’t want to get sued, Jun added, which prompts a battle between what he calls ultimately student-centered care and simply protection of the university.
“Universities want to protect the university. From lawsuits. From wrongdoing,” Jun said. “It’s the wrong motivation. It’s not about seeking justice. It’s about trying to do the right thing to the extent that it protects the university.”
Moving forward: A task force hoping to implement change
In spring of 2019, the Faculty Senate, at the suggestion of Shady and nursing professor Amy Witt, established a working group to examine how Bethel educates students about sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Shady knew Witt had a background as a trained sexual trauma response nurse, and together they put together the committee.
“Everyone we asked was very willing to join [the group] and we still continue to feel this passion of, ‘We want to do better on this issue,’ Shady said.
The working group is made up of six members:
- Associate Professor of Philosophy Sara Shady
- Dean of Student Programs Miranda Powers
- Associate Director of Athletics and Head Volleyball Coach Gretchen Hunt
- Title IX Compliance Specialist Shaune Younkers
- Assistant Campus Pastor Jason Steffenhagen
- Associate Professor of Nursing Amy Witt
The working group met almost every other week during fall 2019 to discuss ways to go about tasks, including expanding Bethel’s training and education for students involved in Title IX cases and comparing Bethel’s process of addressing these issues to other Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools.
Bethel’s program is similar to Macalester College’s, according to Younkers.
“We’re sharing all the time, because why reinvent the wheel?” Younkers said in a task force meeting.
Each member of the working group met March 3 to discuss its list of recommendations, found in a February letter to CAS Faculty Senate:
- First, the group believes Bethel should continue its Moodle training, which students are supposed to complete within their first 10 days on campus and new hires within their first 30 days.
- Second, the group recommends the offices of Student Life and Christian Formation host a mandatory community gathering at the beginning of each school year to discuss “relevant issues of covenant living,” within the first 6-8 weeks of school during a period known as “the red zone” when sexual assault reports are highest.
- Third, the group recommends Bethel provide the option to voluntarily engage in small group discussions throughout the year to continue the conversation surrounding sexual violence on campus. These discussion groups, they say, would be facilitated by faculty and staff and could examine various stages a student may face in a sexual assault case.
- And fourth, the group hopes to implement the NCAA “Step Up” bystander curriculum training for a wider variety of students. This curriculum, which Bethel Athletics has reviewed and “plans to utilize” for student athletes, may also be helpful for student leaders to gain insight and knowledge on handling sexual violence, according to the group.
Along with these, Shady says she hopes to normalize the discussion surrounding sexual violence by increasing its exposure to students.
“At almost every college campus that I’ve been to in the Twin Cities, literature [about sexual assault] exists in the bathrooms, and it doesn’t here,” Shady said. “It’s amazing how in 48 hours we could plaster the bathrooms with coronavirus, and we’re still working on getting information on sexual misconduct in the bathrooms.”
Shady explained that these posters would contain QR codes that link to a website with accurate information regarding what to do if you, or someone you know, are a victim of sexual misconduct.
Discussion quickly turned to potential changes in federal legislation regarding Title IX and how such changes could affect the working group’s goals.
In 2011, the Obama administration created policies designed to hold schools accountable for sexual assault and harassment. But when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new plan is implemented, those policies will look very different.
DeVos announced May 6 that the U.S. Department of Education has finalized a new system in which the definitions of sexual misconduct are narrower and the guidelines for launching investigations changes, granting the same rights to the accused as the complainant.
The new policy is in response to allegations nationwide that the system is skewed in favor of accusers, DeVos claimed, and aims to allow cross-examination in live hearings that provide the accused with due process protections.
“It is our goal with this proposed rule to ensure that Title IX grievance proceedings become more transparent, consistent and reliable in their processes and outcomes,” DeVos said in a press release from the Department.
Hunt said if the new structure is different, it doesn’t make sense to move forward on any changes at Bethel right now.
In turn, the group has decided to hold off on making any concrete decisions until after the new regulations are put in place, and the idea of reconvening the working group in fall 2020 was talked about.
“The law is changing,” Hunt said. “Everything could get blown up.”
The last major change Bethel made to its Title IX process happened in 2016 when an anonymous online reporting system was implemented for sexual misconduct, racial and ethnic harassment and disability discrimination complaints. Wald says in the four years since, Bethel has seen an increase in all three types of complaints, although she cannot say by how much.
“While my goal is to significantly reduce or eradicate these types of complaints, if instances of misconduct, harassment, or discrimination are occurring, we want to know about them,” Wald said. “We cannot help those affected and make informed systemic changes if we don’t know about what is occurring.”
Although the group has not proposed anything that would radically alter Bethel’s policy in handling Title IX cases, Shady says the group is focused on offering increased support to victims who go through the process, as well as making information about the process more transparent and more readily available to all students.
“We will never create a place that has zero instances of sexual misconduct because we live in a fallen world,” Shady said. “[But] even if we reduce it by one, we will have been successful.”
The Clarion chose not to publish the victim’s name in large part because of The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which calls for reporters to reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, harm or retribution. The Clarion deemed the use of anonymity necessary in this story based on those grounds. The Clarion obtained documents from the sexual assault investigation to verify the victim’s story.
The Clarion referenced Bethel’s Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures, the university’s Moodle sexual misconduct training videos, three off-the-record interviews with student victims, one court filing in Texas, one original decision letter from a Bethel case, the complainant’s appeal letter and the final decision letter, three interviews with national voices to speak broadly on the topic, one email interview with the Title IX Coordinator and Compliance Officer, multiple drafts of a working group’s letter to faculty senate and 12 MIAC school annual campus crime reports.