VMI Students Challenge Their Expulsions in Court
Six students facing expulsion from Virginia Military Institute filed motions in federal court Friday challenging the fairness of VMI’s disciplinary system and seeking to block a student panel from hearing their cases next week.
The students include three freshmen who said they were struck with a belt and the three seniors who allegedly hit them. Because they initially denied to school investigators that the strikings took place, all six have been charged with lying, a violation of VMI’s honor code that carries the automatic penalty of expulsion.
In a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, Va., the three freshmen said they were under pressure to cover up the seniors’ actions. In two separate motions, the seniors argued that the evidence against them is tainted because VMI student investigators dragged them from their beds and did not fully advise them of their rights.
The six students have asked the federal court to issue a temporary order blocking the VMI student Honor Court from trying their cases until they can obtain a permanent injunction against VMI. The Honor Court trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday, and a hearing on the federal court motions is scheduled for Monday.
A VMI spokesman declined to comment Friday, saying the school will respond in court.
The three seniors struck at least five freshmen with a belt on several occasions last fall under a “whack system,” according to documents filed with the Honor Court. The seniors posted a list of infractions that would bring a whack, including such things as getting a low grade or playing country music, the documents said.
Student disciplinary officers became aware of the incidents when one of the freshmen--not one of those later charged with lying--reported the strikings.
Lawyers for the students facing the Honor Court trial said they were forced to go to federal court to prevent irreparable damage to their clients’ education after the school and the state attorney general’s office, which represents VMI, rejected negotiations for a compromise.
But other lawyers familiar with challenges to student Honor Court proceedings said that such efforts generally have not been successful.
“The federal courts have held that [Honor Court] procedures are adequate even if they don’t comport with normal due process,” said Bill Ferris, an Annapolis lawyer.