It happens here too: an overview of sexual violence at Wheaton
November 2, 2017
This year, Wheaton offered two different options to complete the sexual violence prevention training. Students could attend an interactive seminar with John Foubert, an expert on rape-prevention on college campuses, or complete the online EverFi Haven training.
Title IX Coordinator Allison Ash explained that Wheaton is continually looking for new ways to raise awareness and educate the campus community about sexual violence prevention. Wheaton has invited Foubert to speak in the past, but decided to allow his presentation to fulfill the training requirement for the first time this year.
In spite of the annual sexual violence prevention training and the addition of Foubert’s seminar, several students at Wheaton report feeling as though the student body is ignorant of the frequency and significance of sexual misconduct on Wheaton’s campus. One student, who reported an experience of sexual misconduct at Wheaton, said “There is an assumption that because we’re a Christian institution that it won’t happen, but it happens just as much here as it does anywhere else, which is also a really large number. The statistics on it are a lot bigger than many people think.”
Another student who pursued a Title IX investigation at Wheaton agreed. She said that when she was talking with a few students about their mandatory online training, their knowledge of sexual assault “was so low … when I brought up that [assault] happens here too, and it happens a lot and is a problem, they were blown out of their minds and were in denial at first.”
Wheaton College Public Safety writes an annual report on campus crime and fire safety in accordance with the Clery Act, which requires colleges to give statistics on certain types of crimes. According to Wheaton’s lead Title IX Coordinator Bryan Seiler, “The Annual Safety Report includes statistics for all reports or allegations (but not findings) of sexual assault and other categories of crimes alleged to have occurred within the College’s geography over the prior three calendar years.”
From 2014 to 2016, Wheaton reported four alleged rape cases, five allegations of fondling, five alleged cases of dating violence and seven alleged reports of stalking. Although the Clery Report has sections for rape, fondling, stalking, sexual violence and dating violence, Seiler said that it does not include other issues of sexual misconduct, such as harassment. Still, Seiler cited the Clery Report as the “most systematic report available showing the number of allegations of sexual misconduct received by the College.”
In comparison, Oberlin College, a secular private liberal arts college in Ohio with 2900 students, reported 36 alleged rapes and 14 alleged fondlings. Taylor University, another private Christian liberal arts school in Indiana, reported no sexual violence allegations. The University of Illinois, a public school in Urbana-Champaign, reported 41 rape allegations and six fondling allegations.
Wheaton’s Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy defines sexual violence as “physical sexual acts perpetrated when consent is not present, where a person is incapable of giving consent or coercion and/or force is used,” while harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature … without regard to whether the parties are of the same or different genders.” Harassment is not one of the crimes included in the Clery Act.
A student has several options if he or she has experienced sexual misconduct. First, a student may report a concern to the Title IX team, which Seiler describes as “a multi-disciplinary team that is well-trained and committed to serving our campus and getting these cases right,” as well as Public Safety and the anonymous ethics complaint process at www.wheaton.edu/ethicscomplaint. Outside of the college, local law enforcement and medical resources can care for students.
Survivors may request that the college not investigate an allegation of sexual misconduct or take other steps to protect the survivor’s confidentiality. According to Seiler, the college will generally attempt to honor these requests, but must weigh in other factors, such as a student’s safety. When a student chooses to report an allegation of sexual violence and does not request that the college not proceed, the college goes through a formal investigation process, which Seiler described as “a process by which the college investigates and makes a formal finding as to whether the policy was violated. If there is a finding of a policy violation, college personnel then assess sanctions and/or disciplinary action.” However, informal resolution, or “voluntary resolution between the parties” is available in cases of harassment.
During a formal investigation, Title IX investigators and adjudicators are assigned to the case, a investigation takes place, the investigators’ final report is reviewed by the adjudicators, a decision is made and, if a violation of the policy is found, sanctions, corrective actions and remedies are imposed. These sanctions range from a mandatory apology to expulsion. If the student who reported is dissatisfied with the outcome, they also have the opportunity to appeal. The college aims to complete the investigation within 60 calendar days, but may extend the time limit for “good cause.”
One common misconception about the reporting process is that students who report experiences of misconduct will get in trouble for having violated aspects of the community covenant at the time of their assault or harassment. On the contrary, the policy states that “the college recognizes that students may be hesitant to report a sexual assault violation in some circumstances, such as when they or others may be accused of violating other college policies, such as drinking or using drugs at the time of the incident … no conduct proceedings or conduct record (for students) or disciplinary actions (for employees) will result from an individual’s good faith report of sexual misconduct believed to violate this policy.”
According to Ministry Associate for Care and Counseling Rebecca Meyer, students who are same-sex attracted and/or questioning their gender identities are less likely to report experiences of sexual violence. “I would say the students I work with in Refuge are at the highest risk for sexual harassment and assault,” she explained. Meyer said that these students feel as though they will not have support from Title IX and the college; however, “the reality is, and I tell them this all the time, Wheaton has no retaliation. If it is happening in your relationship, name it. We care about your safety… there’s no wavering on that.”
During an investigation, Wheaton’s policy has interim guidelines that aim to “support and protect the parties and prevent any further acts of alleged misconduct, harassment or retaliation.” A few examples include no-contact orders, changing class schedules or referral to counseling/health services.
However, there are some cases where students still do not want to pursue an investigation and wish their experiences to remain confidential. Wheaton has policies in place that allow these students to receive the physical and emotional support they need without involving Title IX.
Student Health Services, the Counseling Center and the Chaplain’s Office are confidential locations where students can receive care. In these three places, employees are not required to report the student’s experience to the college. All other employees of the college, including ResLife staff members such as RAs, are mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct.
Several students interviewed expressed surprise at the existence of the confidential resources, which they had no knowledge of before starting an investigation. One student said she would have pursued these services before, or even in place of, reporting to Title IX.
Even after a student goes through an investigation, and even if that investigation’s findings are in their favor, healing can be hard to find. Meyer, who is part of the Chaplain’s office, explained that students need more than just a legal process to recover from sexual violence. “No system or process can heal the wounds that were done through the sexual harassment or assault,” Meyer said. “We have more things that provide healing than that, we have Jesus Christ. Do report sexual victimization, because God cares about justice on earth, but nothing that Title IX adjudicators hand out as discipline will promise your safety forever or repair what happened. That feels like bad news, but it’s actually good news, because it clarifies what will bring healing: Jesus.”
One of the students who has been through the process of healing after her sexual violence investigation explained that she needed more than just a legal investigation. She also received counseling and found people that “spoke truth over [her]” and prayed for her. For a long time, she struggled with the trauma of her experience, dealing with physical reactions like chest pain and panic attacks. She even “had to leave class a couple times, breaking down, crying.” She eventually found healing in believing that “the cross of Christ is big enough to cover all the sins that I’ve committed and the ones that have been committed against me, and I didn’t need the decision of the administration as justification, I don’t need an apology from this person as justification, I have the cross of Christ and I am loved in him and found in him.”
Part of Wheaton’s commitment to helping students through the process of reporting and healing is to train the student body on issues of sexual violence.
According to Justin Heth, dean of residence life, his role in the community is to “uphold the community and help the community flourish, which means training RDs, GRAs and RAs to care for the community well and bring concerns they are hearing about to our attention so that we can address them.” This includes sessions with Title IX Coordinator Allison Ash that explain the responsibilities they have as employees to report any instances of misconduct.
Heth is confident that “we take [sexual misconduct] very seriously … we are Biblically called to take a strong stand.”
Still, one of the students interviewed who experienced sexual violence feels that listening to the stories of students is often more influential to raise awareness than the mandatory trainings. “It is more helpful to hear students’ stories of things that have happened or hear specific things that they can be aware of,” she said. For example, Wheaton “had an event last year called “Don’t Ignore the Red Flags”… I think it’s more helpful [than the trainings] to have something later in the year that has more student involvement and planning.”
One of the students interviewed found herself dissatisfied with the “inconsequential disciplinary action” her perpetrator received in the end. She explained that “reporting was hard, and it was worse than the actual experience, so I don’t know if I’m super happy that I reported, just because it was a really hard decision to decide whether to report or not.” When asked why, she described that a “lack of communication by the people handling my case made it an extremely anxiety-inducing environment because I never knew what was happening with something that was so personal. It was affecting me so much, and I was left out of the equation because there was no communication to me and it was just them dealing with it in their circles.”
On the other hand, a different student described her experience with the Title IX as “on the positive side,” although still extremely difficult. At first, she worried that she was being “overdramatic” about her experience of sexual violence, but a meeting with Allison Ash validated what had happened and convinced her to go through with a formal investigation. She felt that their communication with her was clear and valuable. “They didn’t make me false promises,” but “they also told me that just because it doesn’t go in your favor doesn’t mean that your experience was not real and doesn’t mean that we don’t believe [you]… right now we’re just trying to see if there’s enough evidence to make this case.”
One of the other students originally found the same validation when she first brought her concern forward, but in the end her perpetrator basically received “homework” as discipline. She had expected her aggressor to receive expulsion, or at least suspension, based on the college’s policy. She explained that she still feels confused as to what happened during her investigation and is still working through a high level of emotional trauma. “They told me [my experience] was serious and that because of the circumstances it has to be filed, and then for them to say that and not handle it seriously was very confusing to me.”
The same student suggested that sticking to the 60 day limit would improve the process for future reports. She explained that her investigation took a long time to get started because of the way the other party handled the allegation. “Timeliness is important, and it’s important for [the investigators] to stick to that 60-day period … the longer these things take, the more likely the outcome doesn’t match up to what it should be.”
Meyer seeks to remind survivors of sexual violence and the rest of the student body alike that “the reality is that it’s evil that [sexual violence] ever happened to you, no system or process can ever accommodate the deep pain … I don’t think it can ever be a good experience. So then the question isn’t, ‘Was it a good experience or a bad experience?,’ but ‘Did the people helping you do what they said they would; were they people of their word?’”
Meyer added, “I can’t promise you a perfect reporting structure, but what I can say is don’t do this alone.”