In the newest controversy to hit Pennsylvania’s only military academy, a 20-year-old former cadet has filed a lawsuit accusing Valley Forge Military Academy and College and its then-leaders of looking the other way while he was bullied, beaten up, waterboarded, and sexually abused in a violent ritual known as “toothpasting.”
Lawyers for the former student, identified only as “John Doe,” allege in court papers that their case — filed last week in Common Pleas Court — is just one of many instances of abuse in recent years and that the Main Line military academy “outrageously and unconscionably allowed abuse to continue and chose not to alert the public at large to their findings."
The former student’s most serious allegation concerns three then-VFMA students being charged as juvenile offenders in February 2017 by Radnor Township police after the “toothpasting” episode, in which cadets attempted to sodomize him with a lacrosse stick while he was fully clothed. The juvenile charges were reported at the time by Main Line Suburban Life.
Attorney Stewart Ryan said his client “was terrified not just by the fact that he was being abused but the culture at Valley Forge — that people who did report [incidents] did not fare well.… He lived in a state of fear during his time there.”
Officials at the academy — whose attorneys sought last week to transfer the case from state to federal court — did not respond to requests for comment.
VFMA, in Wayne, is an all-boys private school for cadets in grades 6 to 12 that also offers a two-year coed college program. Yearly tuition at the academy — which has produced notable alumni, such as the writer J.D. Salinger and Iraq War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf since its founding in 1928 — is about $45,000 for boarding students.
The school community remains roiled over the abrupt departure last month of the school president, Walter T. Lord, who lasted roughly a year after he was brought in to deal with declining enrollment, financial problems, and other woes including past charges of hazing and other discipline problems.
In the wake of a petition drive and stakeholder protests over Lord’s never fully explained departure, the parents of two students this month filed a federal lawsuit seeking to remove the current trustees’ chairman, John English, and to reinstate Lord as president for the remainder of the school year.
The hazing and abuse charges in the new lawsuit closely dovetail allegations made in a 2015 federal Title IX whistle-blower complaint filed by former dean of student services Robert Wood, who left the school that year and is now Title IX coordinator at Gwynedd Mercy University.
Wood’s complaint also alleged that there was a sodomizing hazing ritual. Other episodes cited in the document included a female cadet’s alleging a rape at an off-campus Halloween party, a plan by male cadets to have sex with a female cadet and film it on a class trip to London, and an incident in which a 15-year-old male cadet forced another male student to have sex with him in a dorm room.
“There were just too many instances of kids getting hurt and people not intervening,” Wood said this week in explaining why he filed the federal complaint. He said he was aware of at least three other allegations of “toothpasting,” including the one he investigated, which he described as a “welcome-to-the-corps ritual.”
Wood also said there was a “Fight Club” — similar to the popular 1999 movie — in the basement of a barracks that came to his attention after one cadet broke his hand while brawling.
In the John Doe lawsuit, attorneys for the former cadet describe “an average teenager” from Ohio whose psychologist thought he would benefit from a military academy and who arrived at Valley Forge in the fall of 2016 for his senior year of high school. The suit claims the abuse began not long after the youth moved onto campus, starting with an October classroom incident — captured on video — in which he was assaulted by another boy while a teacher who was in the room did not intervene.
The 24-page complaint alleges the youth was constantly bullied, harassed, called names like “bitch,” and had his possessions stolen, or had full cans of shaving cream tossed at him in the shower. In February 2017, it alleges, a cadet slammed his head into a wall but he was afraid to tell anyone “because he knew they wouldn’t do anything.”
The episode in which he alleged cadets struck him with a lacrosse stick, forced it down his mouth, and then attempted to sodomize him through his clothes took place that same month. According to the complaint, he was also “tortured” by other students who struck him with belts, and “waterboarded” him by covering his face and pouring water on it. He was then left blindfolded and bound to a dorm-room door for 20 minutes.
The suit says that the three assailants cited by Radnor police were dealt with by the juvenile justice system. It states that John Doe completed that year’s studies remotely but became “severely depressed," sought psychological treatment, and lost interest in attending college. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000.