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Former VMI student sues school, claiming he was waterboarded and physically assaulted

Virginia Military Institute is being sued by a former student who claims he was waterboarded and physically assaulted. The school denies the allegations.
Virginia Military Institute is being sued by a former student who claims he was waterboarded and physically assaulted. The school denies the allegations. (Erica Yoon/Roanoke Times/Associated Press)
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A former Virginia Military Institute student claims he was waterboarded, physically assaulted and forced to wrestle another student while partially clothed during his first year at the school, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

The alleged incident led the student, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe, to withdraw from the school. The man’s attorney said the former student’s identity has been concealed because he is worried the lawsuit will affect his future and because he fears retribution from military institute leaders.

The small, public school in Lexington, Va., has a documented history of racial and gender-based discrimination, according to the complaint. The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2014 found the school permitted a hostile environment for female students. In response to those findings, VMI agreed to adopt policies to improve its response to sexual violence and harassment.

But the former student who is suing claims that VMI does not enforce those policies when victims are men.

“VMI responds aggressively to allegations of hazing involving female cadets but shows deliberate indifference to allegations of hazing involving male cadets, because of long-held and outdated gender stereotypes about young men,” the lawsuit says. “VMI minimizes the hazing of male cadets as ‘boys being boys.’ ”

The school denies the allegations, said Col. Stewart MacInnis, a VMI spokesman. Cadets are trained to prevent and report hazing and sexual misconduct, he added.

“We have not violated anyone’s rights and will defend the institute vigorously,” MacInnis said. “VMI takes immediate action when polices are violated.”

A wrestling match between John Doe and another first-year student is at the heart of Doe’s sexual harassment allegation, which included “naked wrestling and unwanted touching,” according to the complaint.

After school leaders learned of the alleged incident from an upperclassman, they did not launch a separate Title IX investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations, the lawsuit says. Doe claims it is because he is a man. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

Timothy Furin, Doe’s attorney, said he hopes the lawsuit will raise awareness of systemic issues within military academies and compel policy changes at the federal level.

“There’s an epidemic of sexual assault and sexual harassment that’s destroying our armed ­forces,” Furin said. “If we can’t get it right at the commissioning source, how are we ever going to solve the problem?”

Officers who serve in the military are often selected, or commissioned, from schools such as VMI.

The complaint accuses the school’s Board of Visitors — VMI’s governing body — of turning a blind eye to hazing and abuse on campus, Furin said. The school’s superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, and its commandant of cadets, Col. William J. Wanovich, are also named as defendants, along with five current or former students who allegedly participated in the assault. School officials responded to requests for comment through the VMI spokesman.

Four of the students listed as defendants in the suit did not respond to requests for comment. The fifth named as a defendant could not be reached.

The events outlined in the complaint are alleged to have happened the night of Jan. 30, 2018, and into the early hours of the following day. Upper-class cadets allegedly covered John Doe and another first-year cadet’s faces with towels and drenched them with water to simulate drowning — a torture method known as waterboarding. Then, Doe and the other novice cadet were bound at the feet with duct tape, doused with air freshener and beaten by at least three older students while others watched, according to the lawsuit.

The night ended after both first-year students were forced to wrestle each other in a “winner-takes-all” match in front of other cadets, the lawsuit claims.

Doe said he told his mentor — a fourth-year student at VMI — about the incident hours after it occurred. At the time, Doe said he thought the alleged assault was part of the “Rat Line,” a strenuous introduction to life at VMI in which upper-class cadets train first-year students during their initial months at the school. The younger students are called “rats.”

“I said to [my mentor], ‘Do you think this is normal?’ And he said, ‘No, this is very messed up,’ ” Doe said in an interview. “I thought everything was fine. I thought this was normal. I thought it was something you had to do as a rat.”

Doe said his mentor reported the incident to school officials, including the school’s assistant Title IX coordinator — who waited two days to inform campus police, the lawsuit alleges.

In the weeks that followed, a VMI police officer conducted an investigation, and three of the upper-class cadets named in the lawsuit were disciplined, according to the complaint. MacInnis declined to say how the students were punished, citing federal privacy laws.

One former student accused of assaulting Doe told a VMI police officer that the alleged assault was part of the Rat Line tradition, the lawsuit states.

First-year cadets are required to complete intense workouts during the Rat Line. It’s a hallmark of the school and starts in the fall and continues into the first several weeks of the spring semester, MacInnis said.

“They’re put under stress. They have to figure out how to handle it. It’s one of the important things that VMI does,” MacInnis said. “It’s a very physical experience. Mentally, it’s a stressful time, as well.”

Upper-class cadets plan and execute the training under the guidance of school officials, ­MacInnis said.

“The cadets who finish it, they’re called brother rats,” he said. “There’s bonds that form; they last a lifetime.”

First-year cadets “may be stopped and tested by upper-class cadets during certain hours each day” and “must also be ready to recite school songs, yells, and other information — and drop for pushups if they fail,” the school’s website says.

“I spent 22 years in the military. I can assure you this isn’t military training,” Furin said. “If this were two female cadets who were made to take off their shirts and wrestle in front of their assailants for their assailants’ pleasure, that certainly would have been handled differently by the institute.”

Furin said he has not determined how much the suit will seek in compensatory damages but, in Virginia, plaintiffs can sue for as much as $350,000 in punitive damages.

But he says the legal action is not about money.

“We’re hoping that the lawsuit will be a catalyst for change at VMI,” he said. “We hope VMI will equally enforce their policies and procedures across the board.”

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