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Racial slurs at VMI ‘a common experience’ for Black cadets, investigators told

The main entrance to the Virginia Military Institute's P. Wesley Foster Jr. Stadium. (Heather Rousseau for The Washington Post)
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Virginia Military Institute students and graduates have told investigators that “it is and was a common experience to hear racial slurs among VMI cadets, including use of the n-word” over the past 25 years, according to an interim report issued Monday night by the law firm examining racism at the school.

The law firm of Barnes & Thornburg also revealed that VMI, the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, gave investigators a voluminous report detailing more than a dozen “substantiated” accounts of allegations involving a “racial component” since 2015. The 223-page document is titled “VMI Cadet Government Investigations with Racial Components from 2015 to 2020.”

At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration

And a VMI employee told investigators that a disproportionate number of African American cadets are targeted for prosecution by the school’s student-run Honor Court system and expelled for violations. The law firm offered no numbers, but The Washington Post reported in December that Black students made up 43 percent of those expelled between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020, though they represented just 6 percent of the student body.

Barnes & Thornburg, which is being paid $1 million for the state-ordered probe, acknowledged that it has spoken to far more VMI graduates — 46, as of March 1 — than current students. As of March 5, its investigators have interviewed only five cadets out of 12 who have agreed to talk.

The firm has distributed an online survey about the racial climate on the Lexington campus to cadets, faculty, administrators and graduates. By last week, 661 people had completed the survey, although it was sent to more than 1,600 cadets and 700 VMI employees.

Aside from allegations of racism in the 102-page report, several recent graduates told investigators that a member of the commandant’s staff “had repeatedly walked into women’s rooms when they had their shades down,” a sign that they were changing clothes. One graduate told the law firm that this staff member “walked in on her when she was in her underwear and that he also did this to several other female cadets.”

According to Bill Wyatt, the spokesman for VMI, that staffer is no longer employed by the school.

A survey conducted by VMI in July 2020 and given to the law firm showed that 8 percent of female cadets reported that they had “experienced some sort of sexual assault.”

Women, who were not admitted to VMI until 1997, have faced some harrowing incidents in the past. The law firm recounted how one female cadet, who attended VMI about a decade ago, reported “instances of harassment” to the campus’s inspector general several times but received no follow-up. She said that one male cadet threatened “multiple times to kill her and engaged in behavior that suggested the threat was legitimate. She also woke up in the night several times to find him sitting in her room.” The report added: “She believes no action was taken because he was the son of a prominent graduate.”

The firm also described how a female graduate from the early 2010s was raped by an administrator but that the school mishandled her investigation — a sexual assault that appears to match up to an account chronicled in The Washington Post in 2014.

Just 14 percent of VMI’s 1,700 students are female.

“VMI is currently reviewing the report, the detailed assertions therein, and the numerous attachments,” Wyatt said. “In brief, VMI is deeply troubled by the accounts detailed in the report. Reported allegations of racism and sexual improprieties are immediately investigated by the Institute. If found to be substantiated, action is taken. VMI will, of course, continue to foster a culture where all members of its community are treated with dignity and respect.”

A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion

Wyatt emphasized that VMI investigates “incidents of racism every time they are reported to us just like every school in the country.”

“VMI has turned over more than 44,000 pages of documents to the Barnes & Thornburg team,” he said. “Among them, were files documenting 17 alleged incidents of racism that were reported to the Institute. Each of these incidents were individually investigated through our administrative processes as soon as they were reported to the Institute. Thirteen were substantiated and disciplinary measures were implemented.”

In the firm’s report alleging the common use of racial slurs on campus, investigators noted that VMI did punish cadets credibly accused of denigrating minorities. Those cadets received penalty marching tours; a week to three months of confinement to the cadet’s room, the barracks or the campus; demerits; and cultural awareness training.

VMI cadets attack Black students, women on anonymous chat app as furor over racism grows

VMI, which receives more than $19 million in state funds, has come under intense scrutiny over its treatment of minorities on campus. After The Post published an article in October describing what Black students have endured, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who graduated from VMI in 1981, ordered an independent investigation of the school.

At a news conference Tuesday, Northam was asked about the firm’s report. “I think a lot of the findings, while they’re preliminary, are very disturbing,” he said. “And so the investigation needs to continue. It needs to continue unencumbered. And I urge the folks at VMI to cooperate and allow the firm that we have retained to do an open and independent investigation. And at the end of the day what we want for VMI and what we want for any college or university in Virginia is for that place to be open, to be welcoming and for people to feel comfortable when they go to school there and for their families to feel comfortable and for the staff, the faculty, et cetera. So that’s really our goal.”

The investigation, which is scheduled to be completed in June, got off to a halting start, with VMI initially seeking that its own lawyers be present for the firm’s interviews with cadets and faculty. Eventually, the school backed off that demand. Since then, the school’s interim superintendent, retired Maj. General Cedric T. Wins, has promised that the identities of interviewees would be kept confidential. He stressed the school would not make attempts to figure out who spoke to the firm.

“All members of the VMI community will be treated equitably and without fear of retaliation at every stage of this vital process,” he said.

In its interim report Monday, Barnes & Thornburg said it has interviewed 10 of the school’s 15 members of the Board of Visitors. One unnamed board member has refused to be interviewed.

Some board members have said the firm’s investigation is “redundant,” the report said, because its members and VMI’s staff “are already addressing the issues that led to this investigation . . . ”

The 181-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy and was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, has long resisted changes that would make Black students feel more welcome on campus. It was only in December that VMI removed a statue of Confederate Stonewall Jackson, a former VMI professor and enslaver, which stood at the main entrance to the barracks.

The online survey, which was obtained by The Post, asks respondents to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with a series of statements:

“There is a culture of racial intolerance at VMI.”

“News media reports of racially intolerant conduct at VMI do NOT accurately reflect the culture at VMI.”

“It is harder for people of color to succeed at VMI than it is for white people.”

“Instances of racially insensitive behavior by VMI cadets or employees are isolated and NOT part of a systemic problem.”

“I am glad that an investigation into the culture at VMI is taking place.”

Some of the survey statements asked students to say whether they were sexually assaulted or harassed at VMI; another question asked how often they’d heard or seen written racial, ethnic, homophobic or transphobic slurs, with answer choices that included “never,” “once or twice,” “a few times,” and “more than a few times.”

Another set of questions asked how frequently if at all they had personally experienced or witnessed firsthand racial intolerance on campus.

The survey also probed people’s feelings about VMI’s student-run honor system, which expels students who violate the college’s honor code forbidding them not to lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do. A student accused of cheating faces an Honor Court trial, where they can be convicted by non-unanimous student juries. Once their conviction is upheld by the superintendent, they are removed from campus.

Then, in the middle of the night, the Honor Court president announces their name in a “drum-out” ceremony to the corps of cadets.

In the investigation’s survey, one question asked whether people believed drum-outs, non-unanimous juries and the use of student spies — who can be enlisted by the Honor Court to catch their peers cheating — should be preserved, abolished or “studied and possibly changed.”

Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said VMI’s spokesman did not explain what prompted the school to conduct its own investigation of racial incidents. There were investigations of each reported incident of racism.