Preaching Peace and Silencing Survivors

by | Apr 12, 2017


goshen entranceThe author of today’s post, Erin Bergen, is a leader in the survivor-led movement against sexualized violence at Mennonite colleges. As a student at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, she helped found the Functional Immediate Response Student Safety Team (FIRSST), a group of students committed to ending sexualized and gender-based violence on the Goshen campus. In addition to successfully advocating for a number of positive policy changes from Goshen administration, FIRSST played a vital role in spreading awareness about Title IX and its role in protecting students from harassment, abuse, and assault. As a student activist, Erin attended a Know Your IX Title IX Bootcamp, organized bystander education on campus, and served as a regional student coordinator for the It’s On Us campaign.

Unfortunately, Erin also had an experience that is all too common for college students, particularly women: she was sexually assaulted. In this piece, she describes her experience filing a complaint through Goshen’s federally mandated Title IX process. After experiencing minimizing, victim-blaming, and breaches of confidentiality, she filed a report with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), claiming discrimination on the basis of sex. In December 2016, the OCR contacted Erin to inform her that they would investigate her complaint against Goshen College. 

We’re crossing our fingers that the OCR’s investigation of Erin’s complaint will still happen. Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the pace of OCR investigations of schools is likely to slow, at the very least. At Into Account, we’re taking this threat as an opportunity to promote knowledge and understanding of Title IX. Not because it’s the end-all-be-all in sexualized violence prevention, and not because it doesn’t have some serious flaws. We approach Title IX from a conviction that every student deserves to attend school without the threat of rape, abuse, or harassment. In coming posts, we’ll talk more about how you can help us promote interpretations of Title IX that keep this conviction front and center.

If you’re a fellow survivor or supporter and would like to contact Erin, you can do so through Put “For Erin Bergen” in the subject line.

–Stephanie Krehbiel

In fourth grade, every day while I packed my lunch, I imagined what my teacher was packing in theirs. I would imagine packing that too when I was a grown up going to my grown up teaching job. When I was in middle school, I got to go teach lessons at a preschool as an alternative project. Throughout high school and college, I diligently collected soft things, rainbow things, my favorite children’s books, imagining my cozy, colorful,   engaging classroom. In college, I woke up early to get my teacher outfits ready before I went to classrooms to observe or engage. All of this was with the end goal of my own classroom with me as the head teacher. In college, I was sexually assaulted, retraumatized by the administration, and as a result had to leave before earning my teaching certificate. As I was leaving, I used the last of my energy to file a Title IX complaint with the federal government, so that future students would not have go through what I did, and would be able to leave college with degrees instead of PTSD.

My school was Goshen College, a small Mennonite college in northern Indiana that is under Title IX investigation. Title IX is the federal legislation containing regulations for gender and sexual equality in all federally funded educational facilities.The Mennonite Church is a historic peace church, distinctive for its nonviolent theology and intellectual leadership in pacifist circles. Mennonites differ from mainstream Christianity in several ways. They have a focus on the aforementioned peace theology and a historical connection to adult baptism. Mennonites also place moral value on the preservation of community. Like many Protestant churches, the Mennonite Church has been trending towards evangelical theologies in recent years. Despite this, Goshen College has been able to market itself as a liberal bastion of the Mennonite church. In lived experience the campus culture is similar to other small evangelical colleges, steeped in purity culture.

Evangelical colleges have strict rules for purity and abstinence. These rules mean absolutely no sex or alcohol. This definition of purity sets up a specific culture so that when sexual violence occurs, it is a violation of the purity code more than actual violence. The Christian notion that everyone is a sinner allows people who perpetrate to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and then be allowed to continue perpetrating.

In U.S. evangelical culture, people who perpetrate sexual and relationship violence are just people who got confused and made a mistake. Rarely do we recognize that there are people who look at the world in such a way that they will continue to perpetrate harm. In colleges across the nation, this kind of violence is perpetuated by a lack of appropriate administrative response. If a perpetrator made a one-time mistake, the logic goes, there is no reason for further accountability by the college.

Goshen College is no exception. The reporting system for adjudication of sexual violence is set up in a way that does not encourage people to seek help or feel comfortable to come forward after an incident of sexual violence. In fact, there are not any reported cases of sexual violence or misconduct in the Clery Statistics. This does not reflect the actual number of sexual assaults that have occurred on campus. Students have brought forward concerns to the administration for years with little to no change taken by the powers that be.

When I filed my Title IX complaint against Goshen College, it was not a decision that I took lightly, but there were general patterns that I had spent my two years at Goshen College observing. The first is that a survivor’s story and experience are minimized. The bigger picture is a pattern of treating every sexual offense as an individual instance. Those in charge of investigating reports of sexual misconduct do not look farther than the survivor who reports, and when a survivor does come forward they are met with skepticism. In my case, the investigators talked about a standard of evidence to “say absolutely it happened.” Under Title IX, as in civil courts, this is not the legal standard of evidence used. The standard under Title IX is the preponderance of evidence, which means the incident in question is more likely than not to have occurred.

The investigators in my case blatantly asked me if there was “harder stuff out there,” and referred to my report as being in the “grey zone.” I was asked in multiple ways why I had waited so long to make a report. I was told by someone doing my investigation that “if we (the investigative team) had twenty incidents that is a very different pattern than one incident and one story.” I was asked to bring other survivors forward because without them the investigators did not feel they had the same responsibility to ensure my safety. Because this went against my Title IX rights, the investigators asked me not to tell others I was asked to bring others forward.

Goshen did not show that they had a grasp of their legal or moral obligations. The investigators laughed when I disclosed that the perpetrator was not on campus, and made joking references to it later. They used the distance as a means to drag the investigation out from the initially promised few months, past the timeline Goshen College outlines in their policy, and ultimately until I was no longer attending the college. When I finally received their decision, the final report did not involve any of the concrete actions the college would take, which was a part of my initial request. I had asked this because I was very familiar with the pattern that the college used to minimize and push reports of violence aside.

The first validating part of my entire experience was the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights choosing my case to investigate. Part of writing the complaint against Goshen College meant going through the things that the investigators of my case had told me. The investigators themselves described my process of reporting sexual assault as a “fishing expedition” and a “witch hunt.” Both of these claims belittled my experience, and made me lose faith in the only process that was at the time available to me by the school.

Throughout the process I was reassured that my name would not be used when talking about any of the aspects of my case with the other members of the Sexual Misconduct Response Team. Regardless of these reassurances, I was contacted about the investigation by a faculty member to whom I had not chosen to disclose my case. I had specifically asked the investigators I was disclosing to whether this specific staff member would be privy to my identifying information, and again was told that they would not. This violation of my privacy wishes made me ultimately feel unable to face the people who had continually misused and abused my trust.

My story is not unique. Not only is this story representative of college campus culture across the United States, but I am not a unique case coming from Goshen College. There are countless other classrooms, dreams, and lives, put on hold not only by sexual violence, but by the retraumatization of bureaucratic incompetence. Like many other survivors, the response to my assault has more lasting impacts on me than the assault itself. So for now, I choose to find other ways to mask myself and others in rainbows and continue to reimagine my cozy, colorful, engaging future.

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