LEXINGTON, Va. – A former Virginia Military Institute (VMI) student is suing the school, alleging he was waterboarded, physically assaulted and sexually harassed when he was forced to wrestle another student while partially clothed.
The lawsuit says the 2018 incident prompted the student to withdraw from the school and seek a college education elsewhere.
The former first-year cadet filed the lawsuit against VMI, two school officials and five other former upper-class cadets.
In the lawsuit, the cadet is only referred to as John Doe. The lawsuit claims that if his identity were made public, he would be “put at a substantial risk of future retaliation―physically, mentally, and career-wise.”
The lawsuit alleges that on the night of January 30, 2018, John Doe and another first-year cadet, identified as John Doe 2, were physically assaulted and subdued by upper-class cadets, bound with duct tape so they couldn’t move, and then waterboarded.
The lawsuit says that two defendant cadets put a towel over John Doe’s face and partially in his mouth before “pouring two cups of water over his mouth as he gasped for air.”
“If you told any parent that their child would be waterboarded if they attended VMI, the attendance at VMI would be zero,” said Timothy Furin, one of John Doe’s attorneys.
The two victims were then allegedly ordered to wrestle each other, partially naked.
The lawsuit says John Doe reported the incident hours later to an upper-class cadet, who reported the incident up the chain of command to the school’s assistant Title IX coordinator.
The incident was not reported to VMI police for another two days, on February 2, 2018. Court paperwork says the investigating police officer learned that two defendant cadets had taken pictures during the assault on their cell phones and that officer told them “to delete the photos in her presence." The lawsuit also says that one of the defendant cadets admitted to the officer that ‘the incident was all part of a Rat Mission, A VMI tradition.’"
First-year cadets are known as “rats” and must complete intense physical challenges as part of the Rat Line during that first year. According to VMI’s website, rats “can 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 lawsuit says, “As a result of the law enforcement investigation, VMI initiated disciplinary proceedings” against three of the accused cadets. Furin said the upper-class cadets accused in the lawsuit were allowed to graduate.
“These students never should have been able to graduate and they certainly never should have been able to be commissioned as officers in the military," Furin said.
VMI spokesman, Col. Stewart MacInnis, confirmed that he is aware of a hazing incident from 2018, but couldn’t go into specifics.
“There were incidents that were brought to our attention," MacInnis said. "They were investigated and action was taken.”
MacInnis said the school has strict anti-hazing policies and all allegations are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
“Cadets receive training every semester on how to identify issues, whether it’s hazing or sexual misconduct,” MacInnis said. “There are multiple channels they can report that.”
The lawsuit calls VMI’s response to hazing of male students “deliberate indifference," adding that, “although VMI treats the hazing of female cadets as unacceptable, VMI minimizes the hazing of male cadets as ‘boys being boys.'”
Furin said his client would like to be a catalyst for change.
“He doesn’t want any other cadet to suffer through what he suffered through to be able to achieve their life-long dreams of becoming a commissioned officer,” Furin said.
MacInnis said VMI has not violated anyone’s rights and the school plans to vigorously defend itself in court.
The lawsuit is demanding a jury trial, that the five accused former cadets pay John Doe at least $350,000 and that VMI “create and strictly enforce a grievance policy and procedures.”