By Ned Newton
The commonwealth’s attorney for Rockbridge County and Lexington said he wants victims of sexual assault at Washington and Lee University to seek help from police and prosecutors who can investigate and file criminal charges.
“You will be met with compassionate and understanding professionals who want what is best for you as much as we want to bring your offender to justice,” Jared Moon wrote in an email, responding to questions from the Rockbridge Report. “No charges will be initiated unless you agree. We will stand by your side and do all within our power to see that justice is done.”
In the past month, two former W&L students have faced sexual assault charges. Ricardo Vergara, 19, of Nashville, Tenn., was arrested on Feb. 26 on felony charges of rape, sexual battery and object sexual penetration.
On Feb. 3, Daniel Selby, 20, of Manhasset, N.Y., pleaded guilty to sexual battery in a case involving a woman who is not a student at W&L. Selby was initially arrested on a felony charge of object sexual penetration. But the plea agreement reduced Selby’s charge to a misdemeanor, and he spent two days in jail.
Three days after Selby’s guilty plea, another W&L student came forward and told the university that Selby had sexually assaulted her, according to a report that W&L provided to Moon’s office as part of requirements under Title IX—a federal law that directs universities to implement procedures for dealing with sexual assault complaints on campuses. The Rockbridge Report obtained the W&L reports to Moon’s office through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Like Moon, Lexington Police Department Detective Nathan Kesterson said he wants more people to seek help from law enforcement officials.
“If someone has been assaulted, that’s a crime,” he said. “We’re a police department. W&L is not. They’re a business. There’s a whole other side to the sexual assault world than what the school does.”
Universities like W&L rely on internal disciplinary processes to handle allegations of sexual assault made by students against other students. It is often viewed as an alternative for women who want to avoid subjecting themselves to the public nature of the criminal justice system, where they’d be questioned by police and would likely have to testify in front of a jury if charges are pursued and a case would go to trial.
“Even though victims present their evidence in the Title Nine process, they are not cross-examined by an attorney,” Moon said.
But the university’s process is secretive and complicated, and it’s come under attack because many students say W&L does not do enough to punish offenders. Sexual misconduct cases at W&L are handled by the Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Board, which is made up of university administrators who hear and adjudicate sexual harassment allegations.
Earlier this week, two top W&L administrators sent out emails to all faculty and students that tried to explain the university’s policies.
“The university’s primary goal is to prevent all forms of sexual misconduct from occurring. But when misconduct does occur, we need fair and effective policies and processes to address it,” wrote Lauren Kozak, the Title IX coordinator at W&L. “All complainants are informed in writing of their option to pursue criminal action for incidents of sexual misconduct that may also be a crime. W&L Public Safety can assist in making a criminal report.
Kozak said the university will be providing additional educational sessions for students in the coming weeks.
Moon said students should call police first because they are trained law enforcement professionals. He said school administrators are untrained civilians. He also said police officers can collect and preserve evidence that will strengthen a case if they know about a sexual assault allegation early on. And, Moon said, the authorities would only pursue charges if the victim wanted to.
“The longer we wait, the more likely we are to lose evidence,” he said. “I have never understood that if you have been victimized, your first call is to the university. The best thing to do to pursue a conviction is to call police.”
Moon said he recalls only one or two other sexual assault cases involving W&L students that were pursued in criminal court since he first became a prosecutor in Rockbridge County and Lexington in 2015.
The prosecutor’s office has received 14 Title IX reports of sexual assault from W&L since Moon became commonwealth’s attorney in 2019, according to the response to the Rockbridge Report’s FOIA request. The only two reports that led to prosecutions were the Selby and Vergara cases. In all other cases, the victims chose not to pursue charges.
Four out of the 14 reports indicated that W&L had received information that the perpetrators involved had been accused of sexually assaulting multiple people.
“A repeat offender may be given a free pass,” Kesterson said, referring to the university’s process. “What if a perpetrator didn’t learn their lesson and goes out and sexually assaults another person?”
Kesterson said the university can kick students out if they are found responsible for sexual misconduct. But police can file criminal charges against someone who is accused of sexual assault.
Dr. Melina Bell, a philosophy and law professor at W&L, said she doubts that sexual misconduct proceedings at any university will end harassment.
“Most of it is not reported and bodies that adjudicate cases are faced with perverse incentives,” she said in an email. “Find the accused responsible, and you may face an embarrassing, expensive lawsuit.”
Sidney Evans, vice president of student affairs at W&L, said in her email to students and faculty that the university’s response to sexual assault allegations is grounded in three principles: fairness and sensitivity, respect for students who filed reports if they do not want to move forward, and appropriately addressing each case individually.
“Sexual misconduct cases are the most complex, challenging and emotionally charged conduct matters that we face,” she wrote. “The toll they take on the students involved and their potential impact on our overall community cannot be understated.”