In mid-May, rising senior Kasey Meredith made headlines when she officially became the first female regimental commander in the Virginia Military Institute’s 182-year-old history.
But the top honor was marred by a cruel, sexist online campaign by fellow students who accused officials at the military college of choosing her as “a publicity stunt” after state-appointed investigators began examining racism and sexism at the school, which didn’t become co-ed until 1997.
“Let’s just get it out there: She was picked because she’s female not because she was the most qualified,” one poster on the social media app Jodel wrote.
According to The Washington Post, photos were uploaded to the app, with Meredith’s head scratched out or replaced with an egg. A joke about her involved in a sex act with her significant other drew sneers and upvotes. “This is the most unpopular RCO choice in VMI history, literally can’t think of anyone that wanted her or anyone that ever interacts with her besides other sheeds,” one anonymous cadet said. (Female cadets are regularly called “she-dets” or “sheeds” on the app.)
But the sexist attacks against Meredith were hardly an isolated event—as women who attended the institution described harrowing experiences of sexual assault to the Post. A recent independent investigation by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg into the nation’s oldest state-supported military college further filled out the picture of a campus where “institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and left unaddressed.” The report called the misogynistic acts and outcomes uncovered “disturbing.”
“Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces, the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture,” the report said. Between 2017 and 2019, VMI reported 14 rapes, 14 incidents of “forcible fondling,” and four cases of stalking.
In the report, one female graduate who attended the school shortly after it was integrated said that a male cadet urinated on a female cadet as she slept, that males in her company defecated in bags and tossed them into the rooms of female cadets, and sometimes went to women’s rooms and urinated on their towels. She told investigators about being pulled out of her bed at night and “taken to a dark room where she was questioned about her dating and sexual activity by a member of the Honor Court, who was later found to have exploited his position to harass female cadets,” the report said.
While VMI’s policies against discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, and retaliation are “well written and easy to understand,” and the college’s Inspector General’s office has “robust procedures” for investigating complaints, many women at the school fear retribution for reporting sexual misconduct, the report said.
In a statement to the Post, VMI’s spokesman said, “All reports of sexual assault and harassment are handled by VMI with the utmost urgency, in accordance with federally-approved policy, and in the best interest of the cadet who makes the report."
But women at the school described in interviews with the Post an environment marred by hostility toward women, mockery on Jodel, and anticipated backlash from male cadets if they reported incidents of sexual misconduct.
One woman said she was raped in January in the barracks by a male cadet who had been a friend. She said she had not felt comfortable reporting the case for fear of retribution from male cadets who routinely defended the perpetrator as “a good guy.”
Another female cadet told the Post she was molested her freshman year in 2019 by an older student, who she said came up behind her in a campus building and started kissing her and groping her butt and crotch.
She told the Post that she filed a complaint with the Title IX office, but that the student who molested her had only been punished with demerits, campus confinement, and penalty marching tours. A school official discouraged her from pushing for more punishment since he was close to graduation, she said.
A third woman, who graduated from VMI in 2019, said she was attacked her freshman year when a fellow freshman raped her in her barracks room.
No one from the school ever got back to her when she alerted VMI’s commandant staff about the rape, she said.
Barnes & Thornburg found that while the school “conducts extensive sexual assault training,” male cadets “treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humor, without consequence.”
The school said, however, that it could not respond to “the many unconfirmed, anecdotal allegations throughout the report.”
“VMI expects each cadet to participate in the required Title IX training with as much, if not more, seriousness as they would approach their academic classes,” its spokesman said in the statement.
Concluding their report, investigators from Barnes & Thornburg suggested that the military college has the chance to seize change over issues with race and gender while still retaining its core values.
“An honest and open examination of the race and gender issues at VMI, coupled with a commitment to progress and change is required to allow the VMI experience to be a challenging but safe and welcoming experience for a more diverse population of young people,” the report said. “To say the least, VMI has never undertaken that examination.”