Last week, in an email to faculty, staff and students, Eastern Mennonite University acknowledged and responded to Lauren Shifflitt’s testimony to the stalking and abuse she experienced from former EMU Vice President of Enrollment, Luke Hartman. The EMU statement has been shared widely through social media. EMU’s public response to Lauren Shifflett’s testimony impacts Lauren, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence broadly speaking, and it impacts the way the wider Mennonite public goes about processing the relationship of this case of complex personal and systemic violence to Mennonite identity, faith and practice. We at Our Stories Untold desire to work in support of Mennonites who sincerely strive to act in solidarity with those vulnerable to abuse and its repercussions. We do not take pleasure in voicing opposition for opposition’s sake. However, when Mennonite institutions choose to speak and act in ways that further exacerbate systems of sexualized violence, we see it as an ethical obligation, an obligation of faith and a necessary practice of solidarity with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to speak.

An open letter from OurStoriesUntold to Eastern Mennonite University in response to its statement regarding L. Shifflett’s testimony  

Dear EMU Cabinet and Board of Directors,

Your statement released to the EMU community in response to L. Shifflett’s April 12 post on Our Stories Untold was painful to read. The woman you name, Lauren Shifflett, is a woman we’ve come to know and respect deeply. We can tell you she was devastated by your statement. Even so, she knows she told the truth and her truth stands. She is resilient. But you represent an institution with power and resources that we don’t have. Survivors who step forward publicly are not powerless, and yet we are fighting what can feel like a lonely battle to be heard in a world that wishes we would remain silent. It is important for you to listen. Here’s how Lauren and others of us responded to your statement:

“The story shared this week by Lauren Shifflett in OurStoriesUntold was very painful to read.  We are deeply grieved. We applaud the strength she had and the courage it took to share her experience. Our prayer is that by sharing her story, and through the support of her family, friends, and church, she will continue on the path toward healing.”

We notice you stop short of saying “We believe her.” It is still just “her experience.”  And we notice you stop short of offering her your support. Why? She was an EMU student when Hartman was stalking and threatening her while he worked at Skyline Middle School. Isn’t that worth a mention? Why leave this important fact out? Why not express sorrow that you were not able to protect her and acknowledge that you had a responsibility to do so?

“When EMU leaders were informed in early September 2014 of Luke Hartman’s past relationship with a then, un-named female prior to his employment as vice president for enrollment…”

You are misleading the public when you refer to Hartman’s aggressive behavior toward Lauren as “past”. It was not prior to his employment but during his employment as Vice President for Enrollment that the stalking incident, which led Lauren to reach out to Lindale for help, occurred. Where and from whom did you get your timeline, and why was Barbra Graber (Mennonite@snapnetwork.org, 540-214-8874), as Lauren’s SNAP advocate, not contacted to confirm it before you chose to publicly contradict Lauren’s testimony? We are tired of reading the lie repeated in the church press that Hartman’s atrocious behavior toward Lauren happened only prior to his employment at EMU. Hartman was an EMU VP in September of 2014.  It is clear in her story that she came forward to Lindale out of fear of Luke in August of 2014 and that Lindale leaders contacted EMU around that time. By referring to Hartman’s relationship with Lauren as “past” at the time it came to your attention,  all we have left to conclude is that you do not believe her.

Secondly, when you refer to Luke Hartman’s behavior toward Lauren simply as a “relationship” rather than qualifying that relationship as one marked by “stalking” or “abuse” your decision not to acknowledge the violent nature of Luke’s behavior toward Lauren suggests, again, that you either do not believe Lauren or do not consider the terror she experienced relevant to the role of the university now or in 2014.

“…we took immediate steps to initiate disciplinary actions and measures of behavioral accountability.”

What sort of disciplinary actions did EMU take, exactly? The public knew of none. Lauren and her family waited anxiously for some news of some action, but none came. If you did take disciplinary action, disclose that information. In 2014, a number of Lindale leaders knew the extent of Luke’s criminal stalking and threatening behavior toward Lauren. What happened in the reported meeting you had with Lindale leaders about Hartman? Who was in the room? Was Duane Yoder, who knew Lauren’s full story, in the room? Anyone who protected Hartman and helped to make it possible for him to evade accountability has exacerbated the impact of this violence and must be held accountable.

Under Title IX legislation, your students all have a right to a safe campus free of the threat of sexual violence, and yet nowhere in your statement did you even mention your Title IX coordinator’s contact information. If you learned that your vice president was stalking Lauren and you allowed him continued access to students, then current and former students have likely grounds to file a Title IX-based complaint against you through the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Your faculty and staff also have federal protection against sexual harassment and stalking, and negligence in handling a sexually abusive administrator is a potential violation of their legal rights as well.

“These disciplinary actions and measures were commensurate with what we learned about his past behavior and were also done in the context of the measures taken by Luke’s church.”

What “past behavior” did you know about and why aren’t you telling us about it here?  Public safety is at stake. In not disclosing this information you are continuing to help protect a known predator.

“We now know — based on new information — that the specific disciplinary actions and measures did not lead to a change in his behaviors, such that he was subsequently arrested for solicitation of prostitution.”

Again we hear about your “disciplinary actions and measures.” We so wonder what those were. Please tell us. And whose new information? It seems you are referring to the information gathered by the police that led to Luke Hartman’s arrest. Lauren, however, has now provided lots of new information that reveals Luke’s behavior as also sexually violent, abusive and manipulative. Does she get any of your gratitude? Why not take this perfect opportunity to say “Thank you, Lauren! Thank you for your bravery in providing this critically important information that contributes to the safety of all.” Why not take this perfect opportunity to say WE BELIEVE YOU, LAUREN. Instead you subtly but clearly again distance yourself from her by sidestepping any admission that her account had any import for you.

“As more information has come to light since that arrest, and through Lauren’s sharing of her story, we commit to examine and learn from this experience with the help of professionals who are equipped to provide counsel.”

We are glad Lauren’s story has moved you to examine and learn. We also need to know whose professional counsel it is that you will seek. You have not shown, in your handling of this situation in 2014, in your silence ever since, and in the statement you sent to employees and students, that you are committed to the best interests of survivors and those most vulnerable to sexual violence. You are not in a position to ask that we blindly trust you to live out such a commitment adequately going forward. Will the professionals you seek  teach you how to become even more skilled at refraining from taking responsibility for the fact that a known predator continued on in a high position that gave him easy access to young prospective students? Such professionals exist and are consulted regularly by universities all around the country. Or, will the professionals you seek truly help you learn to prioritize and advocate for those vulnerable to abuse? We hope for the latter, but only your transparency will assure us that this is, indeed, the path you choose.

“We acknowledge that many individuals have been harmed in a variety of ways. We pray for grace and healing for everyone negatively impacted.”

You have not actually acknowledged that Lauren was, indeed, harmed. You have expressed that you were grieved to read her account of her experience, but you have not affirmed that you believe her or acknowledged that she was harmed by your employee and your university. Since Lauren’s harm has gone unacknowledged, your acknowledgement here that many individuals have been harmed (which, in itself, is certainly true)  functions to minimize the harm she experienced. You have made her harm relative and unexceptional. Know also that when you do not express solidarity with survivors your prayers for grace and healing are unwelcome (some use the word “sickening”) to the ear of survivors who have been abandoned and betrayed by the church. We will welcome your prayers only when they are backed with noble action.

“Anyone who has ever been the victim of any form of sexual misconduct can take advantage of EMU’s confidential counseling services through our counseling Center, 540-432-4317 and/or through our campus pastors 540-432-4115.”

No, actually you should not be advising anyone who has been sexually violated to go to EMU’s counseling center or campus pastors. Such resources may provide excellent service for other student needs, but victims of sexual violence have special legal as well as emotional needs that require very special training. An invitation to report any incidents or suspicions of sexual violence in-house offers institutions the opportunity to hide, minimize, and manipulate its reports of rape and sexual misconduct for its own benefit. As of now, victims have no certainty of a fair and impartial hearing or advocacy by anyone related to EMU because the advocates who are there to offer them support are employed by the institution responsible for their safety and thus legally liable.  In addition, campus pastors and Christian counselors are typically not trained to conduct sex crime interviews. While spiritual leaders who are specifically trained in offering spiritual care for survivors of sexualized violence may be of support to survivors, victims must be encouraged to go immediately to a local crisis center, a specially trained and independent therapist, to law enforcement, a civil attorney or an independent survivor support group like SNAP.*  Cases of sexual violence must not be dealt with in-house.  We have heard too many stories of tragically harmful counsel from Mennonite employees of Mennonite institutions for far too many years to allow such invitations to go unchallenged.

*The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), featured in the 2016 Oscar winning film “Spotlight,” is the world’s oldest and largest support group for survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. SNAP was founded by victims of Catholic priests in 1988 and now has more than 21,000 members in 79 countries. Even though “Priests” is in its title, SNAP is open to religious and nonreligious persons who were sexually violated by anyone inside or outside a faith community. The Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP (Mennonite@snapnetwork.org, 540-214-8874) was established in early 2015. Their Mennonite Abuse Prevention List was launched in April 2016. A SNAP Survivor Support Group meets the first Thursday evening of every month in Harrisonburg, VA. Contact 540-214-8874 for more information.  

To respond, you may contact Hilary Scarsella at hjs.osu@gmail.com.