Coast Guard Academy investigating potential racial incident

New London — Addressing a report that a white male cadet might have intimidated an African-American cadet based on his race, Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. James Rendon said at an academy-wide meeting Monday morning that the school "will not tolerate racist behavior of any kind."

"If you fail to heed this message, you don't belong here," Rendon said at Monday's meeting, which was required for all cadets, faculty, staff and coaches. The meeting lasted about 10 minutes.

The Day obtained an audio recording of the meeting by someone who wanted to remain anonymous because they did not have the authority to release it. In it, Rendon describes the incident, which he said he first heard about on the morning of Oct. 27 while attending a meeting in Washington, D.C.

The academy denied The Day's request to attend the meeting. Spokesman David Santos said officials didn't feel it appropriate to open the meeting up to the media.

The incident is being criminally investigated by the Coast Guard Investigative Service and by the academy under the Coast Guard's anti-harassment, anti-hate and discrimination policies.

Rendon describes the incident as follows: A white male cadet reportedly walked into a black male cadet's room and played a song that "many consider offensive" and that "romanticizes a world in which the South won the Civil War."

The black cadet told the white cadet that he believed the song was racist and left the room to discuss the encounter with a diversity peer educator, according to Rendon. Diversity peer educators are cadets who volunteer to serve as the "go to" person for information and support on topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Once the black cadet returned to his room, he discovered that the background screen on his laptop had been changed to an image of the Mississippi state flag, which includes the design of the Confederate battle flag.

"While the battle flag's meaning may be disputed throughout our history, it has been used by some to intimidate African-Americans and other historically marginalized groups," Rendon said.

The incident happened on Oct. 26, "only hours" after Capt. Melissa Rivera, commandant of cadets, met with the entire student body to discuss the results of an investigation into a separate incident, which occurred in the spring and involved the display of the Confederate flag.

The spring incident involved a picture, posted on Instagram, showing two white male cadets, dressed in civilian clothes, with their backs to the camera. In it, they are pointing to backward-facing red hats on their heads with the words "Make America Great Again," President Donald Trump's campaign slogan. A Confederate flag hung on the window behind them.

The picture was investigated administratively as a possible hate incident. According to the results of that investigation, released on Oct. 11, the picture was taken while the cadets were attending an off-base party at a private residence while on liberty.

The investigation found that there was "insufficient evidence to establish that the cadets who appeared in or posted the photograph were motivated by bias against a particular race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or constitutes a hate incident."

Rivera, the commandant of cadets, held the Oct. 26 meeting to discuss the results of the investigation, which some on campus expressed concern over and felt the academy was normalizing the Confederate flag.

Of the 23 reports by cadets, faculty or staff of hate or harassment from 2007 to 2017, only six were substantiated, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Day on July 21. The rest were unsubstantiated. This data only includes reports made through the Coast Guard's official anti-harassment/hate process.

All 24 incidents reported by cadets, faculty or staff through the Coast Guard's official discrimination complaint process 2007 to 2017 resulted in no finding of discrimination, according to data obtained through the same FOI request.

The latest incident comes after four minority cadets spoke out about what they describe as systemic racial discrimination at the academy, which they allege is not taken seriously by leadership there.

After a story in The Day about their complaints, state Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, a 2003 academy graduate, called on the local congressional delegation to further investigate the claims. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy jointly issued a letter to Rendon calling for a prompt response to the matter and offering assistance if needed. Courtney recently visited the academy to meet with cadets and staff about the climate issues.

Rendon acknowledged in an interview with The Day over the summer that there were "some" climate issues at the academy, but that officials there were working to address them.

On Monday, he said, "To those who can't behave as this service demands, who can't treat everyone with respect, with empathy, with basic human decency, I tell you this, this is not your academy. You are not one of us. We don't want you here."

j.bergman@theday.com

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