The FBI is investigating a report that two female cadets at The Citadel were sprayed with a flammable liquid and their clothes set afire, possibly as part of a hazing incident at the military school.
Neither woman was injured, although at least one was the target of other threats as well, according to another cadet who reported the incidents to school officials after the women declined to report it themselves.
The FBI joined the investigation because of possible civil rights violations, said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart.
The alleged incidents happened “weeks ago,” but the school learned of the complaint only late Thursday and promptly requested a state investigation, interim President Clifton Poole said.
“The best best-case scenario I can put on this is it is a severe violation of the Fourth Class system - this has got to be hazing of some sort,” Poole said.
The Fourth Class system is The Citadel’s rigorous first-year military training for freshmen. Hazing is against college rules.
“I’m trying to find out first if it’s true and if it is true, how serious” it is, Poole said. “I can promise you there is going to be punishment if any of this is remotely true - severe punishment.”
None of the officials would identify the targets of the alleged abuse, and Poole would not discuss details.
The commander and executive officer of Echo Company, which includes three of the four women, were suspended from their military command but remain in school while the investigation continues.
Spokesman Terry Leedom said the school was not implying the two were involved, but the alleged incidents happened under their command and neither reported any abuse.
The Citadel’s request for the state investigation asked SLED to look into, among other things, “allegations of flammable liquid on articles of clothing being ignited,” Stewart said.
The chief said he understood from talking with William L. Spearman, Poole’s assistant, that the two female cadets were wearing the clothing at the time, “but the letter states there were no injuries as a result.”
Stewart said the letter also asked for an investigation of one student “making threats of harm to another student.” The SLED chief said he understood the object of those threats was a female cadet.
There was also a third allegation of physical abuse, but Stewart said he was not sure if that involved one of the female cadets.
Nancy Mace of Goose Creek, Kim Messer of Clover, Jeanie Mentavlos of Charlotte, N.C., and Petra Lovetinska, a Czech national who lives in Washington, D.C., were admitted in August, two months after The Citadel dropped its males-only admissions policy.
Poole said all four women were still in school on Friday. Final exams begin today and continue through next week.
“It’s pretty much news to me,” said Harvey Messer, one cadet’s father. “All I have heard is what everybody is reporting. But I talked to my daughter and she said everything is fine.” He would not elaborate.
James Mace, another cadet’s brother, said his family had heard nothing about the incident and his sister had not mentioned it.
Messer, Mentavlos and Lovetinska are members of Echo Company. The company’s members have been restricted to campus until authorities can speak with all of them, Poole said.
“We’re pushing very hard. It’s not something we’re sitting on our thumbs about,” he said.
The college agreed to admit women after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the all-male admissions policy at Virginia Military Institute was unconstitutional.
The Citadel’s all-male policy also had been attacked in a lawsuit. The woman who originally sued, Shannon Faulkner, was admitted to the cadet corps under a U.S. District Court order in August 1995. She dropped out after less than a week, citing the stress and isolation of being the only woman there.
The Citadel’s 21-page plan to admit women that was given to a federal judge covers everything from where women will be housed to what type of lipstick they will wear and whom they may date.
The plan also included sexual harassment training for all cadets.
Poole said the federal judge monitoring the admission of women was advised of the investigation.