VMI cadet describes missteps in sex assault investigation

A Virginia Military Institute graduate, who requests that her name not be published, reported in 2010 that a VMI administrator had sexually assaulted her. At the time, she was still a cadet at the college in Lexington, Va. Her case was recently analyzed as "Complaint 2" in a federal report issued at the conclusion of an investigation of allegations of sex discrimination at VMI. This is an excerpt from a video she made in response to that report. (The Washington Post)

With a piercing gaze into the camera, the Virginia Military Institute graduate urges viewers to comb through a federal report on a sex discrimination probe at the college in Lexington until they find a sex assault case called “Complaint 2.”

“You need to click on the document and read it and scroll down to the complaints,” she says in a 13-minute video posted on YouTube. “You need to read mine. You really do.” It makes a few people, she says, “look pretty bad.”

The case, centered on the woman’s report that a VMI administrator sexually assaulted her while she was a cadet, adds to the debate over student safety and due process swirling on campuses across the country as President Obama and student activists push for a national effort to prevent sexual violence at colleges.

On May 1, the Education Department disclosed that dozens of colleges and universities are under investigation for possible violations of federal law related to their handling of sexual-violence complaints. As of last week, the count stood at 60.

While public attention has focused on reports of students assaulting students, the VMI case appears somewhat unusual because it allegedly involved a college official, raising questions about how the institution polices itself. Such questions also have been at the heart of controversies over prosecution of sex assaults within the U.S. military.

See the federal VMI findings

Complaint

A former VMI cadet alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a school administrator but believes her case was mishandled. Federal investigators listed her case as "Complaint 2" in their findings document. Read it.

The six-year federal probe of various discrimination allegations at VMI illuminated missteps in the college’s handling of a complaint that arose after an off-campus incident in November 2010 involving the woman and a man she knew who worked for the college. The woman and VMI declined to discuss what happened that day, and the federal report contained scant details.

Within hours of the incident, the woman told another administrator that she had been sexually assaulted. That triggered an internal inquiry a week later that the federal government later found lacking.

It took eight months for VMI to open what the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights considered a proper investigation into the matter. The OCR, in its May 9 report, called the delay “unacceptably long.” The college’s inspector general assessed the credibility of statements from the cadet and the accused and reviewed statements from others who had met with the cadet at various points. He found, according to the OCR, that her allegation of sexual assault was substantiated.

But VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, rejected that finding. Instead, according to the OCR report, Peay dismissed the accused administrator in fall 2011 for “inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, including improper physical contact,” in effect ousting him for a lesser offense. The OCR asserted that Peay’s adjustment of the finding “conflicted” with VMI policy.

The case reflects the unusual circumstances of a public college with deep traditions and strict military regimen, open only to men until a Supreme Court ruling forced it to admit women in 1997. Today, nine of 10 VMI cadets are men.

The woman behind Complaint 2, now 25, graduated from VMI in 2012. She did not report the assault to local police, and there were no criminal charges. The OCR report says she told federal investigators that some VMI employees discouraged her from going to the police, “saying that she would be ostracized if she did.” VMI, however, told the OCR that it advised her she could report the matter to law enforcement.

The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault. Contacted by e-mail and telephone, the woman said she would speak only anonymously but provided a link to a YouTube video that shows her face up close. She agreed to allow The Post to publish excerpts from the video online.

The woman says in the video that she had a harrowing meeting with Peay in October 2011 in his office after the second investigation. She says the superintendent asked her: “Do you believe in your heart of hearts that you asked [the alleged assailant] to stop? Because I’m confused on how you let it progress as far as it did.”

The woman continues: “He didn’t ask me if a sexual assault happened. He knew that something happened. He was asking me whether or not it was consensual. I’ll never forget the look of hate he had towards me.”

Through VMI spokesman Stewart D. MacInnis, Peay, who has held office since 2003, declined to comment on the video or the OCR report. MacInnis said federal privacy laws limit what VMI can say about the case.

Retired Army Col. Thomas Trumps, who as commandant of cadets at VMI holds a position roughly equivalent to dean of students, said the school wants “only the best” for the woman.

“General Peay and I are locked in step on that,” Trumps said. “We’ve comforted her for a long time with this. We just want the best for her. We really do. I can’t tell you how much.”

Trumps led the initial inquiry into the complaint at the direction of Peay’s chief of staff about a week after the incident. He denied any attempt to cover up staff misconduct.

“Absolutely not,” Trumps said. “That had nothing to do with it.” Contrary to the OCR’s report, which said the commandant interviewed the accused by telephone, Trumps said his inquiry was “man to man” and direct. “That was live, in person,” he said. “In his office. And multiple times.”

The upshot of this inquiry, according to the OCR, was that Trumps could not validate the woman’s allegation. At that point, VMI told the accused administrator to stay away from the cadet.

But VMI protocol called for the inspector general, not the commandant, to handle such investigations. Trumps said that in retrospect, the inspector general should have been contacted right away, a point the college acknowledged in August in a report in the Roanoke Times. “It’s a fair criticism,” he said.

The case was reopened, the OCR said, only after the cadet confided her troubles to another VMI employee, who insisted on notifying the inspector general. That prompted a second, deeper look at what happened.

Trumps, commandant since 2007, is planning to retire from VMI at the end of next month. Trumps and MacInnis, the VMI spokesman, said the departure is unrelated to the federal probe.

The OCR report detailed conflicting accounts of the college’s early responses to the complaint. For example, VMI said it encouraged the cadet to make a written statement; the woman said the college did not offer to take a statement.

VMI helped the cadet obtain private counseling and paid for it, the report said.

The college also allowed the cadet to move to an area of the barracks where the accused administrator had no direct oversight. But the OCR report found that the woman continued to feel threatened, seeking refuge in such campus spots as the library, where she would be less likely to encounter the administrator.

“The cadet reported that she suffered for months from debilitating stress and anxiety because of the assault,” the OCR said.

The woman’s video briefly mentions a former administrator in connection with the incident. Reached by telephone, the man declined to comment.

The OCR report culminated a six-year investigation of VMI that found various violations of a law known as Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination.

VMI said that it was “profoundly disappointed” with the findings and that it “honestly strove to address all incidents at the institute with transparency, due process, fairness and care.” But it reached agreement with the OCR to resolve the probe through several actions that would bolster safeguards against discrimination.

Judy Casteele, executive director of the nonprofit Project Horizon in Lexington, which provides counseling and other services to victims of sexual violence, said her impression is that VMI puts a high priority on campus safety. “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.”

The woman said in an interview that she wants an apology from the school’s leaders, which she said she has never received.

“This thing is with me every day,” she said. “I deserve one. Human to human. I don’t understand why they won’t give it to me.”

by Nick Anderson

With a piercing gaze into the camera, the Virginia Military Institute graduate urges viewers to comb through a federal report on a sex discrimination probe at the college in Lexington until they find a sex assault case called “Complaint 2.”

“You need to click on the document and read it and scroll down to the complaints,” she says in a 13-minute video posted on YouTube. “You need to read mine. You really do.” It makes a few people, she says, “look pretty bad.”

The case, centered on the woman’s report that a VMI administrator sexually assaulted her while she was a cadet, adds to the debate over student safety and due process swirling on campuses across the country as President Obama and student activists push for a national effort to prevent sexual violence at colleges.

On May 1, the Education Department disclosed that dozens of colleges and universities are under investigation for possible violations of federal law related to their handling of sexual violence complaints. As of this week, the count stood at 60.

While public attention has focused on reports of students assaulting students, the VMI case appears somewhat unusual because it allegedly involved a college official, raising questions about how the institution polices itself. Such questions also have been at the heart of controversies over prosecution of sex assaults within the U.S. military.

The six-year federal probe of various discrimination allegations at VMI illuminated missteps in the college’s handling of a complaint that arose after an off-campus incident in November 2010 involving the woman and a man she knew who worked for the college. The woman and VMI declined to discuss what happened that day, and the federal report contained scant details.

Within hours of the incident, the woman told another administrator that she had been sexually assaulted. That triggered an internal inquiry a week later that the federal government later found lacking.

It took eight months for VMI to open what the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights considered a proper investigation into the matter. The OCR, in its May 9 report, called the delay “unacceptably long.” The college’s inspector general assessed the credibility of statements from the cadet and the accused, and reviewed statements from others who had met with the cadet at various points. He found, according to the OCR, that her allegation of sexual assault was substantiated.

But VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, rejected that finding. Instead, according to the OCR report, Peay dismissed the accused administrator in fall 2011 for “inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, including improper physical contact,” in effect ousting him for a lesser offense. The OCR asserted that Peay’s adjustment of the finding “conflicted” with VMI policy.

The case reflects the unusual circumstances of a public college with deep traditions and strict military regimen, open only to men until a Supreme Court ruling forced it to admit women in 1997. Today, nine out of 10 VMI cadets are men.

The woman behind Complaint 2, now 25, graduated from VMI in 2012. She did not report the assault to local police, and there were no criminal charges. The OCR report says she told federal investigators that some VMI employees discouraged her from going to the police, “saying that she would be ostracized if she did.” VMI, however, told OCR that it advised her she could report the matter to law enforcement.

The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault. Contacted by e-mail and telephone, the woman said she would only speak anonymously but provided a link to an unlisted YouTube video that shows her face up-close. She agreed to allow The Post to publish excerpts from the video online.

The woman says in the video that she had a harrowing meeting with Peay in October 2011 in his office after the second investigation. She says the superintendent asked her: “Do you believe in your heart of hearts that you asked [the alleged assailant] to stop? Because I’m confused on how you let it progress as far as it did.”

The woman continues: “He didn’t ask me if a sexual assault happened. He knew that something happened. He was asking me whether or not it was consensual. I’ll never forget the look of hate he had towards me.”

Peay, who has held office since 2003, declined to comment on the video or the OCR report, through VMI spokesman Stewart D. MacInnis. MacInnis said federal privacy laws limit what VMI can say about the case.

Retired Army Col. Thomas Trumps, who as commandant of cadets at VMI holds a position roughly equivalent to dean of students, said the school wants “only the best” for the woman.

“General Peay and I are locked in step on that,” Trumps said. “We’ve comforted her for a long time with this. We just want the best for her. We really do. I can’t tell you how much.”

Trumps led the initial inquiry into the complaint, at the direction of Peay’s chief of staff about a week after the incident. He denied any attempt to cover up staff misconduct.

“Absolutely not,” Trumps said. “That had nothing to do with it.” Contrary to the OCR’s report, which said the commandant interviewed the accused by telephone, Trumps said his inquiry was “man to man” and direct. “That was live, in person,” he said. “In his office. And multiple times.”

The upshot of this inquiry, according to OCR, was that Trumps could not validate the woman’s allegation. At that point, VMI told the accused administrator to stay away from the cadet.

But VMI protocol called for the inspector general, not the commandant, to handle such investigations. Trumps said in retrospect the inspector general should have been contacted right away, a point the college acknowledged in August in a report in The Roanoke Times. “It’s a fair criticism,” he said.

The case was reopened, the OCR said, only after the cadet confided her troubles to another VMI employee, who insisted on notifying the inspector general. That prompted a second, deeper look at what happened.

Trumps, commandant since 2007, is planning to retire from VMI at the end of next month. Trumps and VMI spokesman MacInnis said the departure is unrelated to the federal probe.

The OCR report detailed conflicting accounts of the college’s early responses to the complaint. For example, VMI said it encouraged the cadet to make a written statement; the woman said the college did not offer to take a statement.

VMI helped the cadet obtain private counseling and paid for it, the report said.

The college also allowed the cadet to change her room to an area of the barracks where the accused administrator had no direct oversight. But the OCR report found that the woman continued to feel threatened, seeking refuge in places on campus such as the library, where she would be less likely to encounter the administrator.

“The cadet reported that she suffered for months from debilitating stress and anxiety because of the assault,” the OCR said.

The woman’s video briefly mentions a former administrator in connection with the incident. Reached by telephone, the man declined to comment.

The OCR report culminated a six-year investigation of VMI that found various violations of a law known as Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination.

VMI said that it was “profoundly disappointed” with the findings and that it “honestly strove to address all incidents at the institute with transparency, due process, fairness and care.” But it reached agreement with OCR to resolve the probe through several actions to bolster safeguards against discrimination.

Judy Casteele, executive director of the nonprofit Project Horizon in Lexington, which provides counseling and other services to victims of sexual violence, said her impression is VMI puts a high priority on campus safety. “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.”

The woman said in an interview that she wants an apology from the school’s leaders, which she said she has never received. “This thing is with me every day,” she said. “I deserve one. Human to human. I don’t understand why they won’t give it to me.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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