Committing Sexual Violence No Impediment to EMU Social Work Degree

“Launch Your Future,” EMU’s website shouts in bold capital letters, as they prepare to hand a social work degree to a student who has – by EMU’s own finding – committed sexual violence.

Continuing Eastern Mennonite University (EMU)’s culture of staggering mishandling of sexual violence, EMU student Joel Wheeler is days away from graduating with a social work degree, despite the fact that EMU determined he committed “non-consensual vaginal intercourse,” “on at least one occasion.”

From the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, here is the legal definition of the word “rape”: ““The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

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Below, we detail the timeline of the experience of the former EMU student who filed a Title IX complaint against Wheeler. Beth*, the survivor at the center of this timeline, needs to remain anonymous for her safety. But she, like Erin Bergen, is brave, resilient, and justice-minded. We believe her. The best way to show your support for Beth is to hold EMU accountable, and to encourage your friends, family, and churches to do likewise.

Graduating a social work major with a Title IX disciplinary finding like this on his record is a catastrophic mistake. Again and again, we encounter people intent on harming others sexually seeking out professions that give them access to vulnerable people: ministry, medicine, teaching, and other care-taking professions. For more reasons than we can begin to detail here, religious folks seem particularly susceptible to letting this kind of predator slip through the cracks. It’s senseless, it’s tragic, and in a case like this one, it’s completely avoidable.

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Beth’s timeline also sheds light on how a process that is meant to empower victims can be used to shame and silence them. Again and again, Beth encountered standard obstacles: Investigators who seemed more interested in her sexual history than in her account of being abused. Repeated attempts to isolate her from her chosen advocate. In numerous small ways and several large ones, Beth was told that her body, her autonomy, and her personhood did not matter. Wheeler will graduate after one semester of “consequences” that are loosely defined and arguably meaningless.

“The RB [Review Board] agreed on the determination based on the preponderance of evidence standard, as required by Title IX, and EMU’s policies on sexual misconduct and sexual assault (in the form of non-consensual vaginal intercourse). It was the determination of the Board that you violated these policies. In reaching this determination, the Board identified a lack of consent on at least one occasion, and assumption of consent based on a prior pattern of sexual behavior. The Board was also concerned about elements of manipulation, pressure, and coercion in the ongoing sexual relationship.”

The letter also detailed disciplinary measures: probation for the remainder of the academic year (“you will not be able to hold leadership positions in campus organizations until the completion of your probation”), and a request that Wheeler “obtain counseling regarding healthy sexual relationships”. The letter to Wheeler concludes,

“It is my hope that you can continue to learn from this experience. We are glad you are part of our community, and I trust these outcomes will encourage you to pursue a better understanding of healthy sexual relationships.”

Title IX legislation is meant to empower victims of sexual violence, to give them options and control in the wake of a crime that robs them of those things. But all too often, we see universities approach Title IX policies as a tool for managing and containing victims, through shaming and subtle intimidation. Beth’s story is but one example of this.

Her case remains open with the Harrisonburg Police Department. Anyone with more information should contact them.

If you have been sexually harmed by Wheeler or by any other individual, please know that we are here for you and will hold your story in confidence while we help you evaluate your options. You can contact us at jyoder@intoaccount.org or skrehbiel@intoaccount.org. If you want to speak with law enforcement or other civil authorities, we can help connect you with survivor advocates in your area so that you don’t have to do it alone.

If you would like to send a message of support to Beth, you can send an email to skrehbiel@intoaccount.org, and it will be forwarded to her. Put “For Beth” in the subject line.

–Stephanie Krehbiel and Jay Yoder

CONTENT WARNING: Graphic descriptions of sexual violence below


Timeline of Events

December 14, 2016: Beth submitted a Campus Safety Incident Report. She describes the incident as follows:

Starting in January of 2014, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted by my then boyfriend, Joel Wheeler. It started with an incident in my dorm room, where he had undressed me and himself, then proceeded to have sex with me without my consent. This continued on the rest of the spring semester at EMU. He would come up to my dorm room when my roommate was either out or away for the weekend, and force me to perform sexual acts I didn’t want to, have sex without asking, or penetrate me while I was asleep.

After completing the incident report while in the office of Irene Kniss, Director of EMU’s Health Services and EMU’s Title IX Coordinator, Beth proceeded to the local sexual assault crisis center, the Collins Center, where she was assisted in filing a report with the Harrisonburg Police Department.

December 20, 2016: Beth met with Dave Emswiler, EMU Coordinator of Campus Safety and Security, and Lois Shank, Assistant to the Provost, to give her testimony. Shank took notes during the testimony and wrote up a report. The reported testimony contained the following statements:

The pattern was–he would come to see her when her roommate was gone, sometimes it was consensual and sometimes she would wake up to Joel having sex with her…He was asleep (he said he was asleep and didn’t know what he was doing); she would wake up and she would be swollen and bleeding….

Joel placed his phone in her room and he recorded them having sex, without her knowledge. Joel tried to show her the video and she covered her eyes with blankets and Joel said fine and he put his phone away. [Beth] never saw him delete the video.

January 5, 2017: Wheeler met with Emswiler and Shank to give his testimony. He denied Beth’s allegations.

January 16, 2017: Beth and Wheeler both received notification from Irene Kniss that a Title IX Review Board hearing of the complaint would take place.

January 27, 2017: Day of the TItle IX Review Board hearing. At 2:11pm, Irene Kniss received an email from Beth’s friend, Alicia*. Alicia had provided testimony to Emswiler as part of the investigation. She wrote,

“I noticed I’ve been misquoted several times in the written statement. I was never given the opportunity to look at the written statement and sign off on it, therefore I just recently found out about this.

The most notable [misquoted] part was when I concluded my statement by saying that it was easy to think that [Beth] was doing this out of revenge to get back at Joel for how their relationship ended. However, I also said why I disagreed with this based on how hard [Beth] worked to move on from everything that happened to her. I said how if this had been about revenge it would’ve happened a long time ago; right after they broke up. She chose to do this because she found out that he was working with vulnerable groups of people such as the elderly and school aged children; as well as being a leader on campus regarding issues of sexual violence. To [Beth] this is about justice and to prevent anything bad happening to somebody else.

All of this was excluded from the written statement and [it] only said that I thought that she was doing it out of revenge.

This is misleading information on how I feel and my statement as a witness. I understand that today is [Beth]’s hearing and I believe that the only fair thing would be for the panel to receive a copy of this email.”

Here is a shot of the most relevant part of Lois Shank’s transcription of Alicia’s testimony, after Alicia edited it by hand to reflect her concerns.

Kniss responded that she would try to get Alicia’s email to the chair of the TItle IX Review Board (RB).

The RB met with Wheeler at 3:00pm, and with Beth was at 4:00pm. Beth was accompanied by Sarah*, an advocate who Beth contacted after reading Sarah’s writing on the website Our Stories Untold. (Under Title IX, Beth has the right to bring the advocate of her choice to any proceedings related to her complaint.)

The following are excerpts from Beth’s testimony in the hearing:

“Beth: We had talked before about waiting until we were married. He knew I had been sexually abused as a child and wanted to wait until I was certain I wanted to have sex. We had talked about not doing it, but he did it anyway. I kinda just laid there, but I didn’t say ‘no,’ but I didn’t say yes. Um, it just kinda continued from there.

Questioner: you said that he had awareness or knowledge of previous sexual abuse?

Beth: Yeah.

Questioner: You don’t have to tell us about that, I’m just asking you about his awareness of that.

Beth: Yeah. He knew before we started dating, so before we had done anything he knew. But I didn’t tell him very long before we started dating….I probably would’ve told him the weekend before that because he asked why I wasn’t…well sometimes I don’t like to be touched but sometimes I do like to hug or cuddle or stuff like that. Sometimes I just get in a way where I can’t, and he asked about that, and I told him why. So yeah, he knew.”

February 3, 2017: Beth went to meet with Irene Kniss at Kniss’s office to pick up the results of the hearing, and asked Sarah to meet her there. When Beth and Sarah arrived, Kniss asked Beth to come into her office and told Sarah that she needed to wait outside “for a few minutes.” Once inside, Kniss asked Beth if Sarah had pressured her or manipulated her in any way. Beth responded that she had not. Kniss wanted to know how she found Sarah; she asked Beth if Sarah’s survivor group had reached out to Beth or pursued her in any way. Beth responded that they had not, and said that she contacted Sarah herself after reading Sarah’s writing on Our Stories Untold. Kniss then went on to speak about other topics. Beth interrupted her twice to insist that she wanted Sarah back in the room. Kniss then allowed Sarah to join them.

Beth received a copy of the disciplinary letter that Wheeler was sent detailing the results of the hearing. The letter, from EMU Vice President for Student Life and Enrollment Jim Smucker, informed Wheeler of the following:

“The RB [Review Board] agreed on the determination based on the preponderance of evidence standard, as required by Title IX, and EMU’s policies on sexual misconduct and sexual assault (in the form of non-consensual vaginal intercourse). It was the determination of the Board that you violated these policies. In reaching this determination, the Board identified a lack of consent on at least one occasion, and assumption of consent based on a prior pattern of sexual behavior. The Board was also concerned about elements of manipulation, pressure, and coercion in the ongoing sexual relationship.”

The letter also detailed disciplinary measures: probation for the remainder of the academic year (“you will not be able to hold leadership positions in campus organizations until the completion of your probation”), and a request that Wheeler “obtain counseling regarding healthy sexual relationships”. The letter to Wheeler concludes,

“It is my hope that you can continue to learn from this experience. We are glad you are part of our community, and I trust these outcomes will encourage you to pursue a better understanding of healthy sexual relationships.”

Beth did not receive any letter addressed to her, only a copy of Wheeler’s letter.

February 6, 2017: Beth sent a letter to EMU Provost Fred Kniss, appealing the findings of the hearing on the following procedural grounds:

  • Emswiler, who conducted the investigation, had a prior, mentor-like relationship with Wheeler that influenced his line of questioning.
  • Alicia’s testimony was meaningfully altered. Beth writes, “[Alicia] emailed Lois Shank, informing her that the testimony that had been transcribed was not true to what [Alicia] had said in her interview. [Alicia] then asked that a copy of her email be printed out and given to the board, which it was the day of the hearing, after the board members had her incorrect testimony and all other information to read over days prior to the hearing. No measure was taken to rectify [Alicia]’s testimony.”
  • Ed Lehman, another RB member, did not disclose that Wheeler worked under him at EMU’s Physical Plant during the summer of 2015, despite the requirement that all board members disclose any prior knowledge of Wheeler or Beth.

Beth also restated the disciplinary consequences that she had requested for Wheeler in the hearing, in contrast to what he was actually given by the RB. These included:

  • An apology for the pain Wheeler caused her
  • Dismissal of Wheeler from EMU, “making it impossible for him to finish his social work degree and therefore making it impossible for him to abuse others via that avenue.”

In addition, Beth wrote the following: “I also stated that I felt it was inappropriate that VMRC and EMHS had not been notified of the Title IX investigation and hearing, considering Joel Wheeler had access to vulnerable people at both locations.” (Wheeler did a semester-long internship at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community to finish his social work degree, and also worked as a coach at Eastern Mennonite School.)

She finished with, “I am available to meet with you and present my physical evidence of procedural error if that is at all necessary.”

February 9, 2017: Beth received a response from Provost Fred Kniss, upholding the decision of the review board. He wrote,

“I do not find support for your claim that two of the parties, one an investigator and the other a review board member, had close personal relationships with the respondent such that their judgments and actions were biased. In fact, neither of the named parties had such a relationship, and neither had any recollection of meeting the respondent before the investigation and hearing.”

Kniss did not address Beth’s concern about alerting Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC) and Eastern Mennonite School (EMS) about Wheeler. To Beth’s knowledge, no one from EMU has alerted either VMRC or EMS about Wheeler’s disciplinary outcome.

Kniss also responded to an appeal from Wheeler, denying Wheeler’s charges of procedural error and Wheeler’s claim that the discipline taken against him was “unduly harsh and arbitrary.” Again, Kniss upheld the decision of the review board.

February 18, 2017: Title IX Coordinator Irene Kniss used her personal cell phone to attempt to contact Beth. Beth saw the message from Kniss on her voicemail and sent Kniss an email message with the following:

“Hi Irene,

I’m up on the mountain and only have wifi, no cell service.

If something is urgent, which I feel it may be since you called from your cell on a Saturday, please email me back immediately so we can be in touch.

If it’s something that can wait or you do not necessarily [need to] speak to me for, please contact [Sarah]. Her number is [______] and I’ve CC’d her so you can just email her if that’s most convenient for you.”

Kniss responded, “I was checking in. It’s not urgent. I will try again when you have cell service.”

February 20, 2017: Irene Kniss called Beth again, and left a message encouraging Beth to call her back.

Beth responded by email, “Hi Irene, just saw your voicemail, and I’m not sure when I’ll be back down in town to have service. If you don’t mind, just send an email so [Sarah] can be in the loop anyway, and so I don’t have to make a trip down the mountain! Thanks for including her in any future communications with me.”

Kniss emailed a response: “Thanks, [Beth]–just contact me when you have service.”

Beth then responded:

“Hi Irene,

If you don’t mind, please just email me and copy [Sarah] so that she can be kept informed as well. If you don’t want to use email, then perhaps a three-way call of some kind can be arranged so that [Sarah] can be on the call too? That may be a couple days, but if you’re okay with waiting I’m fine with that too. Thanks for understanding my wanting to have her with me in all further communications. Thanks for sending any messages to me through [Sarah] in the future. Have a good day!”
(The above email thread is documented here.)

Neither Beth nor Sarah received any subsequent communication from Irene Kniss.

March 24, 2017: Wheeler participated in EMU’s C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorial Contest, giving his speech, A Participation Trophy for Millenials: Why Millenials Don’t Suck, and Why Society Needs Their Participation, along with six other contestants.

http://www.emu.edu/bible/peace-oratorical-contest/

http://emu.edu/now/podcast/2017/03/24/2017-c-henry-smith-peace-oratorical-contest/

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*Pseudonym