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VMI ends shaming expelled students by no longer publicly identifying them

The VMI Corps of Cadets marched in the parade honoring Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Virginia Military Institute is no longer publicly shaming expelled cadets by announcing their names during the college’s middle-of-the-night “drum outs” — a change made amid the state-ordered investigation into racism on the Lexington campus.

Two cadets were drummed out at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday after they admitted to cheating off each other on a math assignment, according to an email sent to the 1,700-member student body by Matthew Keane, president of VMI’s student-run Honor Court. But they were not identified during the ritual, as they have been in the past, according to VMI students.

During a drum out, the entire corps is woken to the beating of drums and a scripted announcement that a cadet has been expelled for violating the college’s strict honor code. The sudden change in the tradition surprised students and touched off a furious debate at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.

“We want to keep you updated with recent changes within the Court,” Keane said in his 4 a.m. email, “and as a result of extenuating circumstances, we will no longer mention the names of former cadets during drumouts.”

Bill Wyatt, a VMI spokesman, declined to confirm Tuesday’s ceremony, saying the school “does not discuss cadet disciplinary matters.”

Wyatt said the decision to stop publicly identifying expelled students — among the most significant alterations to VMI’s honor system since the mid-1990s — was made in late January by interim superintendent Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, the college’s first Black leader.

Before the decision, Wins told The Washington Post that the school had been consulting with the Virginia attorney general’s office about whether the disclosure of expelled cadets’ names in a drum-out ceremony violated students’ federal privacy rights.

VMI, under fire for expelling Black cadets, considers changes to prized honor system

VMI has been under scrutiny since last year, after Black students described racist incidents at the 181-year-old school. In December, The Post reported that between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020, Black students were being disproportionately expelled for Honor Code violations, then shamed by name in drum-out ceremonies.

Wyatt said the decision to change the ritual was made “based on advice from legal counsel.”

He said he was not sure if this would be the first time in VMI history that cadets would not know the identity of drummed-out cadets. “As you are aware, drum-out ceremonies have been occurring for well over 100 years,” he said. “The ceremonies have evolved over that time. This is another step in that evolution.”

On Jodel, an anonymous social media app popular at VMI and other military colleges, commenters in the Lexington feed — which is dominated by VMI cadets — were irate.

“This school is a shell of what it was built on . . . ” raged one poster. “Each year it gives into more and more of the pc culture destroying what makes this place what it is.”

“Yeah. Force me to go to a movie at 3 something in the morning and don’t even tell me the name of the actors . . . great stuff,” typed another.

Others wanted to know the names of the expelled cadets.

“WHAT THE F--- WERE THEIR NAMES” demanded one poster.

“Anyone else on here looking for who it was,” wrote another.

At VMI, which receives more than $19 million in annual state funding, little is considered as sacred as the college’s one-strike-and-you’re-out honor code, which forbids students from lying, cheating, stealing or tolerating those who do.

Cadets suspected of violations are prosecuted by members of the Honor Court. If a student jury convicts a cadet, and if the superintendent upholds that decision, then the cadet is tossed out of the college.

Drum outs have long been a key component of VMI’s honor system. In 1910, according to the student newspaper, the ceremony was a far more humiliating — and painful — event. “The prisoner,” according to the college paper, “was brought before the corps, stripped of his uniform, administered a thorough beating upon his posterior, and escorted to the gate, after being warned never to return.”

In the modern era, expelled students have already been convicted of honor code charges and left campus by the time of the drum out. The ritual takes place early in the morning, at about 3:30 a.m., when members of the Honor Court and regimental band drum-line enter the student barracks, sounding off several rolls of the snare and bass drums. Then, the Honor Court president recites from a script that says the expelled cadet has “placed personal gain above personal honor and has left the Institute in shame” and that their name “shall never be mentioned within the walls of the Institute again.”

The new drum-out script identifies the expelled student only by their class — first-class (senior), second-class (junior), third-class (sophomore) or fourth-class (freshman). But the script still forbids people from mentioning the expelled cadets’ names on campus.

Asked how cadets could follow those orders without being told the identity of the drummed-out cadets, Wyatt said students usually figure out the name on their own.

In interviews, several VMI students — who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution — said they were happy about Wins’s decision.

“I think it’s a lot better because now it won’t humiliate the person,” said one junior. “It’s pointless to tell the whole corps who it was.”

Other cadets said the entire ritual should be done away with.

“The ceremony is kind of crazy and a waste of time,” said one senior athlete. “The school is so rooted in tradition that they’re not willing to let go of the past. Tradition blinds them toward progress. They can’t see when something is unnecessary. And I don’t appreciate losing sleep.”

One cadet said the ceremony should stay and didn’t think the ritual would embarrass the expelled student. “The person’s already gone, so I don’t think it really affects them,” the cadet said.

But drummed-out cadets say that ceremony is humiliating, even if they’re not there to witness it. One former cadet who was expelled in November told The Post that one of his friends emailed him a video of his drum out — a frequent occurrence in the age of cellphones.

“It was just sad and upsetting to watch it,” he said. “I hadn’t told my friends back home, and I was worried they’d find out. I don’t think it was the corps of cadets’ business to know. I would have preferred VMI to have kept it private, but now everyone in the school knows I got kicked out.”