Virginia Military Institute to change student-run honor court meant to expel black people more often

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

VMI detailed the reforms in a progress report on Friday, The Washington Post reported. The 70-page report, which the college delivered to members of the General Assembly and the Virginia Secretary of Education, outlines initiatives approved, enacted or begun in the past year. These initiatives included mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training for VMI directors and Board of Visitors members, as well as changes to the Lexington school honor court system.

Data obtained by the newspaper showed that black VMI students were expelled from the honor court at a disproportionately high rate during the three academic years between fall 2017 and spring 2020. Although black cadets made up approximately 6% of the student body, they made up about 43% of those expelled for violating the honor code.

Twelve of the 28 VMI students fired during those three academic years were black. When students of color were included in the tally, the number expelled rose to 15, or about 54% of the total, even though minorities made up only about 21% of the student population during that period. three years.

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 allowing convictions without unanimous verdicts by juries. of students.

But VMI, which received $21.6 million in state funding for the 2021-22 academic year, announced Friday that it will continue to allow student prosecutors to win cases with non-unanimous verdicts. One concession the school made was that student juries will increase in size and that guilty verdicts will require nine out of 11 jury votes instead of five out 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 proceedings, but stopped a decade ago due to complaints that professional litigants were suing the system itself and that only well-to-do students could stand. allow it.

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

All new changes to the Court of Honor will take effect in August 2022, at the start of the next academic year.

The college also said it would begin keeping “key demographics” to “monitor the fairness of the system.” VMI’s Chief Diversity Officer, Jamica Love, will help “facilitate annual reviews” of the honor system, according to the report.

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

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