Behind W&L’s sexual misconduct processes

Unpacking the university’s reporting routes and outcomes

Students are questioning the sexual misconduct procedures at Washington and Lee after two students were arrested on charges of sexual misconduct in the last month.
Former first-year Ricardo Vergara was arrested Feb. 26 on two felony charges of sexual assault and one misdemeanor charge of sexual battery. A female student reported Vergara to the Title IX office in October for a separate instance, the Phi previously revealed.
Earlier in the month, former sophomore student Daniel Selby pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sexual battery.
Another student filed a Title IX complaint against Selby three days after he was convicted of sexual battery, documents released by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office revealed. The university is required to submit Title IX complaints to the commonwealth’s attorney. The Phi obtained those documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Several deans and administrators contacted by the Phi declined to comment on Vergara and Selby’s specific cases. But on March 7, Vice President of Student Affairs Sidney Evans and Title IX Coordinator Lauren Kozak emailed students with information on general processes and university commitments.
Evans wrote that Washington and Lee takes reports of sexual misconduct “very seriously.” But the university is bound by Title IX rights and privacy rights under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
“Our response is grounded in three core principles: treating all parties involved with fundamental fairness and sensitivity, respecting the wishes of the complainant (the person making the report) when they choose not to move forward with a formal complaint to the extent that we are able, and addressing each case appropriately, according to its unique circumstances and in compliance with all applicable policies and laws,” Evans wrote in her email.

How Title IX works

The Phi dug into policy and interviewed key actors to discover how Washington and Lee handles sexual misconduct.
When a student reports misconduct to the Title IX office, Kozak presents them with options: file a formal complaint, opt for informal resolution or choose to receive supportive measures, like no contact orders and academic accommodations. Students can also choose not to go forward with any of these processes.
Washington and Lee can’t investigate or punish a student for Title IX violation unless a formal complaint is filed, Kozak said. But even if a complainant chooses not to file a formal complaint, the University may file a formal complaint on their behalf.
Informal resolution operates as a negotiation between the accused student and the alleged victim. The accused student and person filing a report settle on an outcome they both agree upon, without the full investigation process.
Students have pushed to change sexual misconduct procedures in the past.
In 2020, students sent a document of policy demands to the Board of Trustees and administration entitled “Reimagining W&L.” One section on Title IX advocated for Washington and Lee to investigate students who receive three informal complaints—even if there are no formal complaints filed.
Audrey Blumenstock, ’22, emailed Kozak in June 2020 to stress the importance of not allowing informal complaints to pile up without investigation. Blumenstock was formerly on the executive team for SPEAK, a student club that advocates for speaking out against sexual misconduct.
“Allowing someone with informal complaints (which many victims do not submit) to continue to walk around campus, attend parties all while placing the well-being of more female students at risk is unacceptable,” Blumenstock wrote.
The Title IX office has not adopted this policy, Blumenstock said.
Formal complaint processes take 70 days to complete on average, Kozak told the Phi. While underway, the university cannot take any disciplinary measures against the student unless they are deemed “an immediate threat to the physical health or safety of any student” by a threat assessment team.

Sexual misconduct board doesn’t include student voices

Unlike the conduct examined by the student-run Executive Committee and Student Judicial Council, sexual misconduct is investigated by the Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Board (HSMB).
The HSMB is run by deans and faculty. The board created a student advisory group in 2016, meant to be appointed each year by the EC, Kozak said. But the EC has not appointed student advisors since 2018, EC Secretary Eli Sampson, ’23, wrote in a text.
Kozak said the EC did not receive enough applications for the position. Meanwhile, Sampson said he received a binder from the former secretary with all the committees that need appointments—and the advisory group to the HSMB was not in it.
The HSMB investigates every formal complaint filed through Title IX. But if a student withdraws while the investigation is ongoing, or a student revokes their formal complaint, the investigation may stop.
The HSMB posts their decisions in cases at the end of each term. The board did not hear any cases last semester, Kozak said.
According to the HSMB website, the board has decided on 22 cases in the past ten years. Fourteen of those cases resulted in the board finding the accused student(s) responsible for at least one of the charges brought against them. Ten of the cases found the accused student guilty of all charges brought against them.

Police offer alternative outlet—but a grueling path to justice

Commonwealth’s Attorney Jared Moon, whose office prosecutes cases of sexual assault that are reported to law enforcement, said victims should come to police first, instead of Washington and Lee’s Title IX office.
Moon said his office doesn’t file criminal charges without the consent of the victim.
“My plea to all those who have ever been sexually assaulted is that your first call should be to law enforcement,” Moon said. “[Police] are trained on how to process a crime scene. They are trained on how to interview victims of a crime. They know when it would be important to take a person to a forensic nurse examiner.”
Blumenstock has firsthand experience discussing sexual assault with law enforcement. She said the process has flaws.
She filed a report of an assault she experienced during her freshman year to the Title IX office in January 2022. The Title IX office submitted that report to local law enforcement in February 2022. Federal law requires formal complaints of sexual assault to be reported to the police, Moon said.
Kozak didn’t mention that requirement to Blumenstock, she said.
Blumenstock interviewed with the Lexington Police Department. She said their style of questioning wasn’t trauma-informed.
“They very much were pushing me,” Blumenstock said. “They were saying things that you should not say to victims, like, ‘He’ll do it to someone else.’”
Blumenstock also noted that the length of criminal trials—as well as the prospect of having one’s account questioned during cross-examination—deters victims from seeking justice through law enforcement.
Criminal trials involving sexual assault take six to 12 months, Moon said. That’s much longer than the 70-day average for Title IX investigations.
“At this point, I was a second semester senior. I was not going to go through a trial or a criminal investigation,” she said. “There’s no limit on how long criminal proceedings could take.”