VMI admits it didn't follow protocol in response to sexual assault allegation
The Roanoke (Va.) Times
Virginia Military Institute officials have acknowledged they failed to follow their own protocol in investigating a senior female cadet’s claim that she was sexually assaulted by a school staff member. The assault claim was made nearly three years ago but the case became public — and drew attention from the U.S. Department of Education — in May.
One night in November 2010, the cadet told a school official that a senior staff member had assaulted her earlier that evening while she was a guest in his off-campus home. That official reported what he heard to a higher ranking officer, VMI’s commandant of cadets, who did not follow VMI protocol that called for him to report the matter to the school’s inspector general. Instead, he confronted the accused employee himself.
“Our protocol at that point was clear, and we could have done better to follow the protocol,” said VMI Communications Director Stewart MacInnis. “We obviously didn’t follow it to the point we involved the inspector general.”
The inspector general, VMI’s internal investigative officer, learned of the incident eight months later and began his own investigation. The man the cadet accused left his job at VMI after that investigation concluded.
In late May this year, the U.S. Department of Education contacted the woman, now a graduate, to interview her as part of an ongoing probe into the treatment of women at VMI. The Lexington public college first admitted women in 1997, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found its all-male admissions policy unconstitutional. Since 2008, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights has been investigating VMI for possible violations of Title IX, the federal law barring gender discrimination in schools. Allegations include gender harassment in the barracks and classrooms, and an inequitable tenure and promotion process for female faculty.
The former cadet, now 24, said she believes VMI failed to follow its protocol in handling her case — and in doing so, violated her rights under Title IX. She said she was not taken to the school infirmary or a hospital, not advised of her right to have physical evidence collected, not provided a sexual assault advocate from local nonprofit Project Horizon and not given an information sheet outlining resources and options.
VMI believes it did not violate the law, MacInnis said. He noted that in 2010 it was not clear that sexual assault was to be considered a Title IX matter — a situation that was not clarified for all schools until a DOE directive in April 2011.
No criminal charges have ever been filed in the case. The former cadet said she did not file a report with local law enforcement because she lacked faith that any prosecution would be successful. Though VMI protocol calls for notifying the police, she said she felt if she did so she could be ostracized by her classmates.
MacInnis said the woman was not discouraged from contacting police, adding that because of federal privacy law, there’s little he can say in VMI’s defense.
“We do dispute many of her specific allegations and her conclusions,” he said.
In May, Virginia State Police opened their own investigation after VMI officials notified them of the allegations. But the commonwealth’s attorney in Rockbridge County said it would be difficult to prosecute the case without cooperation from the woman.
All this comes after more than a year of the former cadet pressing VMI officials via emails and phone calls to acknowledge mistakes and pushing VMI Superintendent J.H. Binford “Binnie” Peay III, a retired four-star Army general, for an apology. She has never had a lawyer and never threatened a lawsuit, she said, a fact MacInnis did not dispute.
The former cadet’s case first came to public light — and drew the DOE’s attention — in May, when the woman posted videos of herself asking for the apology on YouTube. She has since removed the videos.
“What’s keeping this alive is I’m so angry,” she said. If VMI would admit mistakes and apologize, she said, she could move on.
The former cadet, who is not being identified because The Roanoke Times does not identify people who report sexual assaults, said she loved her college for most of her time there. But she describes a troubled home life and leaving her parents’ Virginia home to live with other relatives at 16.
While at VMI, she often arranged to spend shorter school breaks with staff members rather than staying with other relatives, she said. VMI has no policy regarding employees offering their homes to students during holidays, MacInnis said.
Coming up to the Thanksgiving holiday in 2010, a school employee she knew offered to let her stay in his home with his family over the break, and she accepted, she said in a June interview.
The man is not being named because he has not been charged with a crime. He was reached but declined to comment for this story.
The former cadet said the incident occurred on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the last night of her stay, when she was alone in the house with the man. Afterward, she said, she took a shower and he drove her back to the VMI campus. She didn’t go to police but contacted a trusted administrator that night and told him she had been sexually assaulted.
Five days later, that administrator reported the incident to Commandant Tom Trumps, and the Monday after that, Trumps confronted the accused man — a timeline confirmed by VMI spokesman MacInnis. Trumps declined to be interviewed for this story.
The former cadet said that a short time later, Peay sent the man a letter of reprimand and she was told to “go back to being a cadet.”
In December 2010, she said, she considered going to the police but became convinced that without physical evidence of the assault, her case wouldn’t go far.
Through the rest of the 2010-11 school year, the woman said, she spent most of her time in the library studying, trying to avoid contact with the man.
She finished the year, but over the summer began to suffer prolonged panic attacks. When she returned to school in August 2011, she went to the VMI post physician, David Copeland, who with her permission reported the incident again to Trumps. This time Trumps reported it to VMI Inspector General William Grace, who is also VMI’s Title IX coordinator.
Grace’s investigation led to the man leaving VMI, according to an email exchange between Grace and the former cadet.
Before the man left VMI, however, Peay met with the cadet. According to her, the superintendent asked her, “Do you believe in your heart of hearts that you asked [the man] to stop?” He said he was confused about how it got so far without her trying to stop him sooner, the former cadet recalled. Peay noted that many people at VMI had been nice to her, including the accused man, since he had invited her to his home.
The former cadet said Peay’s questioning infuriated her. In a later email to Trumps, she said, “My visit with the general was the most painful, it may have been more painful than the actual act.”
She took some time off from school but eventually graduated from VMI. Even after graduating, she continued to contact VMI officials asking for the apology.
Peay responded to her in a December 2012 letter, a copy of which she provided to The Roanoke Times. Peay wrote that he was “very saddened to learn that you are still dealing with the lingering effects of this experience.” He wrote that he had compassion for her, “though it may not have ‘come through’ in what was a very tough meeting that we had in my office. There were difficult decisions I had to make, and thus hard questions I had to ask.”
In emails provided by the woman, VMI officials and VMI’s attorney acknowledge that the woman continues to suffer from “what happened to you at VMI,” as Peay’s executive assistant, Mike Strickler, put it in one response.
About eight months after the cadet reported her assault, VMI updated its sexual assault policy.
Part of it reflects the clarification from the Department of Education that sexual assault is to be treated as a Title IX offense because it is a form of sexual discrimination.
It also reflects lessons learned from this particular experience, MacInnis said.
In hindsight, he said, officials should have involved law enforcement from the beginning. Consistent with that, the updated sexual assault policy emphasizes calling the police in multiple places, and lists calling 911 and the VMI Police as the first reporting options.
The scrutiny at VMI comes at a time when U.S. service academies are grappling with increasing rates of sexual assaults. VMI, though not a formal U.S. service academy such as West Point or the Naval Academy, sees more than half of its cadets taking military commissions upon graduation. Its military structure and chain of command present the same concerns for reporting sexual assault, observers say.
“This is not unique to VMI,” said Nancy Campbell, co-executive director of the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s a problem that’s very much the case at the military academies and to some extent in colleges and universities.”
Issues arise with the reporting of sexual assault because of the chain of command, she said. The victim wants to be part of the team, and doesn’t want be seen as a troublemaker, and those feelings are coupled with the sense that those they might report the assault to hold power over them.
Those feelings are intensified in an environment where women remain a small minority, Campbell said, because if a woman has problems, it’s more likely to be viewed as a reflection on her entire gender. Conversely, she said, “If a man can’t make it, no one’s going to say all men can’t make it.”
At VMI, women on average constitute 10 percent or less of the corps of cadets, which usually comprises about 1,500 students.
VMI reported four forcible sexual assaults to the DOE between 2006 and 2011. It puts all cadets through training regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault since first admitting women in 1997, and that training emphasizes numerous reporting channels for assaults, from the police to the administration to the counseling office and the chaplain.
Campbell and Judy Casteele, executive director of Lexington nonprofit Project Horizon, which provides counseling and advocacy for sexual assault victims, say the gender of the person receiving the report doesn’t matter as much as the victim trusting them.
“As important as the reporting, and perhaps more important, is what happens afterward,” Campbell said.
Casteele praised VMI for its handling of sexual assaults when they are reported. They involve her organization very early after any reported assault, she said.
“They’re committed to giving cadets an outside party to work with,” Casteele said. “Sometimes cadets aren’t in a place where they want to use an internal system.”
She has great faith in VMI’s Title IX officer, Bill Grace, as well. “He really wants VMI to be safe for everybody.”
The former cadet missed significant school time from being in counseling, but did eventually graduate from VMI. She has continued in counseling, though she said she’s not seeing a counselor now. She’s been living on her own, working to support herself and is starting a new job this fall.
VMI’s policy update is of no comfort to her, she said. The school’s system might be good in design, but VMI failed her in the way it was implemented, she explained.
In February she wrote Strickler, Peay’s executive assistant, and described details of the incident she had never told them of before — details she said she had blocked from her mind but recovered through therapy about a year earlier.
Strickler responded in an email that she had made “new and more serious allegations” and informed her that he had an obligation to inform the police. She might be hearing from them, he wrote.
Grace, the inspector general and Title IX officer, later wrote to her to seek her approval to release his investigation report to the state police, who had requested it.
She has not complied. “I’m sure it wasn’t anything in my benefit, since nothing ever has been,” she said.
Rockbridge/Lexington Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert “Bucky” Joyce confirmed the state police investigation but said there’s not much he can do to pursue a prosecution. With the former cadet uninterested, and “with the alleged event happening some period of time ago, no physical evidence, no witnesses, it doesn’t leave us with anything,” he said.
In March, Elizabeth Griffin, an assistant state attorney general who represents VMI, wrote to the former cadet informing her VMI would pay for a year of counseling for the woman in exchange for a “full and final release of VMI.”
She declined the offer.