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VMI responses to Washington Post questions

LEXINGTON, Va., July 1, 2021— The following are questions submitted to VMI by the Washington Post for an upcoming story about “what it’s like to attend VMI for women.” VMI’s responses to the questions are in italics after each question.

To be clear, sexual assault and harassment have no place at VMI. Such behavior is unbecoming of a cadet and not acceptable of our faculty and staff. VMI is committed to ensuring that cadets, faculty, and staff can learn, train, and work in an environment that is safe and free from harassment.

For more information about VMI’s sexual assault and harassment policies and awareness efforts or to report an incident of sexual assault or harassment, contact VMI’s inspector general, Ms. Susan LeMert at 540-464-7072.

1.  The Barnes & Thornburg report said “sexual assault is prevalent at VMI and yet it is inadequately addressed by the Institute," that sexism may be just as serious of a problem as racism, and that the college fosters “an overall racist and sexist culture.” How does VMI respond to the law firm's findings of a sexist culture at VMI where many women feel a “consistent fear of assault or harassment by their fellow male cadets” and that “assault complaints are not or will not be taken seriously by the VMI administration or that a cadet will suffer retaliatory consequences for reporting them”? I talked to a number of women who echoed those concerns. I want to make sure I give the college an opportunity to respond to the allegations of sexism, sexual assault, and misogynistic atmosphere at VMI.

All reports of sexual assault and harassment are handled by VMI with the utmost urgency, in accordance with federally-approved policy, and in the best interest of the cadet who makes the report. In fact, if you read beyond the executive summary, Barnes & Thornburg even confirms such actions:

“Many women expressed pride in VMI and the treatment of women by male cadets and a desire not to be given any preferential treatment simply because they are women.” (pg 5)

“VMI’s Title IX records reflected a competent and compliant investigation and adjudication process.” (pg 6)

“General Order 16 and General Order 90 comply with the 2020 Title IX amendments. They were prepared with the advice of counsel and approved by OCR. The policies are well written and easy to understand, clearly describing VMI’s policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, and retaliation, the vehicles through which a complainant may report alleged violations, and the process followed once a report is received, including the investigation, hearing and appeals processes.” (pg 126)

“The IG’s office is responsible for providing training to faculty, staff, and cadets to prevent the occurrence of discrimination and harassment, including that in violation of Title IX. To that end, the IG provides multiple kinds of training to all cadets throughout their time at VMI. Each rat is mandated to complete “Not Anymore Training,” an online training tool provided by Vector Solutions that presents twenty scenarios, in August. Rats are required to get an 80% score to pass. All rats also receive StepUp bystander training taught by the CEA along with faculty advisors. Training is provided to all cadets at least annually by both internal and external resources and the training is designed to build upon what is learned in prior sessions.” (pg 127)

“VMI takes clear and meaningful measures to ensure cadets are fully aware of its Title IX policies and practices, including how to report an alleged violation. VMI publishes such information on its website, on flyers and notices posted throughout the Institute, and on laminated cards provided to all cadets each year which they may put in their covers (hats).” (pg 127)

“It is clear from the interviews and records that the IG’s office has robust procedures for dealing with Title IX complaints. It takes necessary steps to ensure cadets, faculty, and staff are aware of their rights and responsibilities with respect to Title IX, as discussed above. Additionally, the IG, assistant IGs, and all others involved in the process, including members of the appeals committee under the former rules and the decision-maker under the current regulations, receive extensive training on how to perform their jobs. The Title IX files likewise reflect the IG’s strict adherence to Title IX’s mandates in the adjudication of formal, initiated complaints.” (pg 128 & 129)

“VMI’s records and VMI’s administrator interviews convey an institution committed to ensuring that its cadets, faculty, and staff are free from discrimination and harassment and to responding appropriately when they are not.” (pg 129)

“VMI’s structural mechanisms for educating cadets and addressing and adjudicating reports of misconduct are robust. VMI’s procedures, investigation and adjudication records, and administrator interviews convey this.” (pg 131)

“As noted above, the Team found that VMI’s investigation and adjudication procedures, once initiated, were robust and compliant with Title IX, specifically 34 C.F.R. § 106.45.” (pg 132)

 

2.  I interviewed several women at VMI. One theme emerged: Women said sometimes their male attackers were allowed to stay as students or were not expelled. Why isn't sexual misconduct of any kind a single-sanction offense at VMI? For instance, Boris Rodrigo Lopez, a former VMI cadet, was sentenced June 9 in Rockbridge County Circuit Court to five years in prison after he was convicted of sexually assaulting another VMI cadet, a female, in September 2019. But it came to light during the hearing that he’d been the subject of two Title IX cases prior to his sexual assault case. The prosecutor said both allegations involve “him touching women without their consent.” Rodrigo Lopez “seems to acknowledge” culpability in one of the Title IX cases; and that the other case lacked any other witnesses, and the claim was determined to be “not substantiated.” Were Rodrigo Lopez’s prior Title IX cases investigated by VMI Police? Why did they not result in criminal charges? In general, how does VMI decide when a Title IX case is worth being elevated from the school’s internal disciplinary system to VMI police for potential criminal charges? 

I refer back to the Barnes & Thornburg report:

“VMI takes clear and meaningful measures to ensure cadets are fully aware of its Title IX policies and practices, including how to report an alleged violation. VMI publishes such information on its website, on flyers and notices posted throughout the Institute, and on laminated cards provided to all cadets each year which they may put in their covers (hats).” (pg 127)

“It is clear from the interviews and records that the IG’s office has robust procedures for dealing with Title IX complaints. It takes necessary steps to ensure cadets, faculty, and staff are aware of their rights and responsibilities with respect to Title IX, as discussed above. Additionally, the IG, assistant IGs, and all others involved in the process, including members of the appeals committee under the former rules and the decision-maker under the current regulations, receive extensive training on how to perform their jobs. The Title IX files likewise reflect the IG’s strict adherence to Title IX’s mandates in the adjudication of formal, initiated complaints.” (pg 128 & 129)

“VMI’s records and VMI’s administrator interviews convey an institution committed to ensuring that its cadets, faculty, and staff are free from discrimination and harassment and to responding appropriately when they are not.” (pg 129)

“VMI’s structural mechanisms for educating cadets and addressing and adjudicating reports of misconduct are robust. VMI’s procedures, investigation and adjudication records, and administrator interviews convey this.” (pg 131)

“As noted above, the Team found that VMI’s investigation and adjudication procedures, once initiated, were robust and compliant with Title IX, specifically 34 C.F.R. § 106.45.” (pg 132)

Also, as I’m sure that you are aware, VMI and any other institution of higher education can only act on reports of sexual assault that are known to the institution and can only move forward with the adjudication process with the consent of the complainant. Whether to pursue a Title IX complaint through the school or through criminal proceedings, if at all, is completely at the discretion of the complainant. Complainants are always encouraged to pursue charges both through the school and through the police. However, the well-being of the complainant is paramount to VMI and, as such, their wishes guide whether the school pursues charges against the respondent.

 

3.  During Rodrigo Lopez’s hearing, judge Christopher Russell criticized VMI for not dispatching a senior administration official to the hearing. Why didn’t VMI send any of its senior officials to this hearing during which the female cadet testified?  

VMI works very closely with sexual assault complainants to ensure they receive the support services they need throughout the investigation and adjudication process and beyond. VMI provides support resources through a number of community organizations, as well as VMI staff trained in trauma-informed care. These resources are available to all complainants whether they seek to pursue charges through the school or the courts or not.

 

4. In its investigation into VMI, Barnes & Thornburg found that while the school “conducts extensive sexual assault training," male cadets "treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humor, without consequence.” How does VMI respond to that finding?

The Barnes & Thornburg report acknowledged VMI’s Title IX training efforts:

“The IG’s office is responsible for providing training to faculty, staff, and cadets to prevent the occurrence of discrimination and harassment, including that in violation of Title IX. To that end, the IG provides multiple kinds of training to all cadets throughout their time at VMI. Each rat is mandated to complete “Not Anymore Training,” an online training tool provided by Vector Solutions that presents twenty scenarios, in August. Rats are required to get an 80% score to pass. All rats also receive StepUp bystander training taught by the CEA along with faculty advisors. Training is provided to all cadets at least annually by both internal and external resources and the training is designed to build upon what is learned in prior sessions.” (pg 127)

“VMI takes clear and meaningful measures to ensure cadets are fully aware of its Title IX policies and practices, including how to report an alleged violation. VMI publishes such information on its website, on flyers and notices posted throughout the Institute, and on laminated cards provided to all cadets each year which they may put in their covers (hats).” (pg 127)

VMI expects each cadet to participate in the required Title IX training with as much, if not more, seriousness as they would approach their academic classes. VMI is unable to respond to the many unconfirmed, anecdotal allegations throughout the report.

 

5. According to page 92 of The Blue Book, anonymous targeting by students via social media apps like Jodel can lead to punishment. Has the school considered barring students from using Jodel or other anonymous social media apps? Has the school disciplined any cadets for demeaning female cadets on Jodel? 

Jodel poses a particular problem in communities where it is frequently used. First amendment rights protect much of the speech contained on such anonymous social media applications even though some of the comments do not reflect VMI’s community standards. It is nearly impossible to identify users of anonymous social media apps. When state or federal laws are violated posing a threat to the VMI community, VMI Police will investigate and seek to compel the identity of the offending users.

VMI will continue to address the issue through additional and more frequent education and awareness efforts.

 

6. Earlier this year, during a student talent show, one male cadet performed a stand-up comedy routine in which he joked about an incident on campus in which a male cadet had inappropriately touched several female cadets. (The incident being joked about took place on March 10 and later was the subject of a Clery Crime Alert.) I was told that the stand-up routine was reported to the Title IX office and the video was not allowed to be posted online; and that VMI officials sat in the crowd listening to the routine without halting him. Why didn’t VMI officials stop this cadet after he made the joke? Did the student face any punishment from the school? Was the school concerned about this performance? If so, why? I was also told that Commandant Bill Wanovich, at the end of the set, clapped, laughed, and gave a thumbs up to the male cadet who performed the routine. Why did Wanovich think the student’s set was funny?

Due to federal privacy laws, VMI cannot discuss cadet disciplinary matters.

 

7.  Was the student who was the subject of that Clery Crime Alert -- who’d been accused of inappropriately touching several women on March 10 -- allowed to stay as a student during the investigation for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year? Or was he suspended or expelled? Is he returning to school for the 2021-22 academic year? What were the results of the investigation? Did VMI Police investigate? Were charges filed? 

VMI is investigating an alleged violation of the school’s Title IX policy that occurred on 10 March 2021. The incident was reported to both the VMI Police and the VMI Inspector General. Since the investigations are ongoing it would be inappropriate to discuss them at this time.

 

8. Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation forcing colleges in Virginia to grant immunity to students from those schools’ disciplinary systems if the students reported they’d been sexually assaulted while consuming drugs or alcohol. VMI, though, got an exemption from this law. Why did the school want this exemption? Is the school worried the carve-out will deter cadets from reporting sex assaults? Does VMI still want this exemption? 

The exemption you reference was provided to VMI due to VMI’s zero-tolerance policy with drugs. VMI’s drug policy is in line with other senior military colleges. Due to the high-risk nature of many cadet training activities, VMI conducts random drug testing of its cadets throughout the year. While the law may exempt VMI, General Order 16 actually provides amnesty to cadets who report sexual assaults for minor offenses including alcohol. This amnesty provision has been in place for at least 6 years. However, in practice, no cadet who has reported a sexual assault or cooperated in the investigation of a sexual assault has been disciplined for an infraction.

VMI has a number of ways for someone to report sexual assaults including the ability to file anonymous reports. Cadets receive sexual assault and harassment as well as bystander training each year. VMI partners with community organizations to provide support to those who make reports and all of VMI’s counseling center and infirmary staff are trained in trauma informed care.

 

9. On Page 83 of the Blue Book, VMI says it grants amnesty to students for minor disciplinary infractions -- such as drinking -- if that infraction comes to light in their reporting of incidents of discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, and retaliation. The amnesty, though, comes with conditions: No immunity is offered if the cadet’s behavior endangered others, if they committed the infraction previously. Is this accurate? Is amnesty in these situations given for students who’ve also been using or possessing drugs? Has VMI ever denied amnesty to someone who reported a sex assault and who in conjunction with that reporting had been found using alcohol for a repeated time?

No cadet in recent memory has been refused amnesty when reporting a sexual assault or when cooperating with an investigation into a sexual assault. Again, VMI can only act on those cases that are brought to our attention.

 

10. According to page 84 of The Blue Book, cadets can be expelled for repeated use of alcohol. Is this accurate? Also, if a cadet gets caught possessing or using drugs, is the cadet immediately expelled? On page 85, the Blue Book says the punishment for drugs is dismissal, but I wanted to see if that was true or whether first or second offenses got lighter punishments. 

VMI’s position on alcohol and drugs is very different than other state schools because of the demanding nature of our program. Every day our cadets are challenged mentally and physically to perform at the highest level. An impaired cadet not only puts their own health at risk but other cadets as well. The first time a cadet commits an alcohol violation, they receive conduct probation for up to one year, alcohol counseling, 15 demerits, 4 months of confinement, and 60 penalty tours (60 hours of marching). A second alcohol violation will result in suspension while a third usually results in dismissal.

A cadet who violates VMI’s drug policy is dismissed.

 

11.  According to page 96 of The Blue Book, sexual activity or contact between cadets on campus -- or in public while dressed in a VMI uniform -- is forbidden. Is this accurate? 

Yes.

 

12. The article explores the college’s annual dances and hotel/motel parties. Students told me that cadets book up to 200 rooms total for each of the dances at the various hotels, including at Days Inn, Quality Inn & Suites, the Super 8, and Howard Johnson. VMI’s commandant’s staff, they said, helps cadets reserve blocks of rooms for cadets; and that the cadets take VMI shuttles to the hotels; and that cadets volunteer to work security at the hotels, and that members of the commandant’s staff also station themselves at the hotels to ensure people are not getting too drunk or disorderly. Is this information accurate?

Cadets who have privileges to sign out of post often get rooms at local hotels after Ring Figure and other dances. Shuttles are provided to / from post as most cadets do not have personal vehicles and to minimize any drinking and driving. VMI staff make the rounds of the hotels as a safety precaution. This practice is currently under review by the new commandant and Maj. Gen. Wins.

 

13. Do VMI officials at the hotels witness drunken or disorderly behavior or sex assaults at the hotels? If so, what action do they take to stop it? If the school knows cadets are getting drunk at the hotels, why do they allow it if the Blue Book doesn’t permit alcohol use on campus or if the Blue Book doesn’t permit “conduct unbecoming a cadet as a consequence of drinking alcohol -- whether on or off Post”?

Any reported violations of the Blue Book or VMI’s sexual assault and harassment policy are fully investigated as noted in the report and, if appropriate, adjudicated. Any behavior that violates policies or is unbecoming of a cadet is not condoned by the Institute.

 

14. In the story, we say that between 2017 and 2019, VMI reported 14 rapes, one of them statutory; 14 incidents of “forcible fondling” and four cases of stalking, according to the college’s statistics. Of all those incidents, how many involved female cadets making accusations against male cadets? How many involved female cadets making accusations against female cadets? How many involved male cadets making accusations against female cadets? How many involved male cadets making accusations against female cadets? 

The information you requested is not readily available.

 

15. By comparison, the Citadel, reported seven rapes for that same period; one case of fondling and one incident of stalking. Why does VMI think its numbers are so much higher than its chief rival? How do you compare VMI’s problems with sexual misconduct to other similar schools?

At VMI, one reported rape or sexual assault is one too many and until that number remains at zero, we will continue to find new ways to address the challenge. The key to this is ensuring that cadets, faculty, and staff have confidence their concerns will be addressed through the policies and procedures in place. Education and awareness as well as reducing barriers to reporting are keys to instilling such confidence. Currently, VMI invests a great deal of time and effort into sexual assault training as noted in the report. Additionally, there are several avenues for a cadet to report violations of our sexual assault policies. VMI believes that the process for reporting sexual assaults is accessible to all cadets and believes that the higher number of reports reflects the accessibility of the process.

 

16. When I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for VMI police records, why did the school redact the names of male cadets who’d been charged with crimes or in one case had been the subject of a protective order? Isn’t this information considered public information?

Student records are not public information under FERPA nor the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

 

- VMI -

 

 

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