Victim advocate: VMI wants to do ‘the right thing’ on sex assault prevention and response

As an advocate for victims of sexual violence, Judy Casteele deals often with Virginia Military Institute and other colleges in the Lexington area.

Her nonprofit organization, Project Horizon, operates a crisis hotline and provides counseling and other services to people in need. Sometimes that includes VMI cadets. Sometimes, too, the public military college asks Casteele for help.

So the executive director of Project Horizon read with keen interest reports on the conclusion Friday of a federal investigation into sex discrimination allegations at VMI. The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education found after a six-year inquiry that the college had allowed some cadets to be subject to a “sexually hostile environment” in violation of the federal law known as Title IX.

VMI said that it was “profoundly disappointed” with the findings but that it agreed to take several steps to strengthen its safeguards against discrimination to resolve the investigation. The college also agreed earlier this year to allow pregnant or parenting cadets to remain enrolled, a reversal of its previous policy.

Casteele said she couldn’t answer whether federal investigators were fair to VMI. She said some of the federal findings appeared to raise legitimate issues, such as a case in which the college’s leadership initially failed to notify its Title IX coordinator when a female cadet reported that she had been sexually assaulted by a VMI administrator.

But Casteele said that in her 11 years at Project Horizon she has been impressed with the college and its superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III. She said Peay, in office since 2003, asked her for help in crafting the college’s sexual assault policy. VMI admitted its first female cadets in 1997. About 90 percent of its 1,600 cadets are male.

“For the most part, they want to do the right thing,” she said. “The reality is, they want it to be a safe environment for everyone.”

Casteele said it is notable that VMI calls her agency for help.

“They will call our staff day or night saying, ‘Can we have an advocate here?’” Casteele said. “To me, that’s not a group that’s trying to hide things.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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