VMI to change honor system said to expel Blacks more often

FILE - This July 15, 2020, file photo shows the barracks at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. The Virginia Military Institute will change its student-run honor court to make it more fair to cadets as part of a response to a state-ordered investigation into racism and sexism. The Washington Post reports VMI detailed the reforms in a progress report Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) (Steve Helber, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LEXINGTON, Va. – The Virginia Military Institute says it will change its student-run honor court to make it more fair to cadets as part of a response to a state-ordered investigation into racism and sexism at the school.

VMI detailed the reforms in a progress report Friday, The Washington Post reported. The 70-page report, which the college gave to General Assembly members and the Virginia secretary of education, describes initiatives approved, enacted or begun last year. Those initiatives included mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training for administrators and members of VMI’s Board of Visitors, and changes to the Lexington school’s one-strike-and-you’re-out honor court system.

Data obtained by the newspaper showed Black students at VMI were expelled by the honor court at a disproportionately high rate for the three academic years between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020. Though Black cadets made up about 6% of the student body, they represented about 43% of those expelled for honor code violations.

Twelve out of the 28 VMI students dismissed in those three academic years were Black. When students of color were included in the count, the number of expelled rose to 15, or about 54% of the total, even though minorities made up only about 21% of the student population in that three-year period.

Barnes & Thornburg, a law firm hired by the state to investigate racism and sexism at VMI, recommended in its final report that the college “consider changing” its policy of allowing convictions without unanimous verdicts by student juries.

But VMI, which received $21.6 million in state funding for the 2021-2022 academic year, reported Friday that it will continue to allow student prosecutors to win cases with non-unanimous verdicts. One concession the school did make was that student juries will expand in size and guilty verdicts will require nine out of 11 jury votes instead of five of seven votes.

Another change would allow cadets to use pro bono attorneys during their trials. VMI used to allow lawyers to represent cadets during the proceedings, but stopped about a decade ago because of complaints that the professional litigators prosecuted the system itself and that only affluent students could afford them.

Now, VMI will draw up a list of pro bono lawyers willing to work with cadet defendants and their “defense advocates” — typically VMI faculty or staff members — before and during trials. But the attorneys will be allowed only to observe and consult their client or their defense advocate during the hearing, not argue the case themselves.

All of the new honor court changes will go into effect in August 2022, at the beginning of the next academic year.

The college also said it will begin retaining “key demographic data” to “monitor the fairness of the system.” VMI’s chief diversity officer, Jamica Love, will help “facilitate annual reviews” of the honor system, the report said.

A state-sanctioned report released last year said VMI has tolerated and failed to address institutional racism and sexism and must be held accountable for making changes. The 145-page report compiled by an independent law firm at the request of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said “racial slurs and jokes are not uncommon” and “contribute to an atmosphere of hostility toward minorities.”