Rep. Soto calls for investigation of CGA discrimination claims

New London — State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, on Tuesday called on the local congressional delegation, “as uncomfortable as it may be,” to further investigate claims of systemic racial discrimination behind the gates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Soto held a news conference at City Hall in response to an article in Sunday's edition of The Day. The article cited four anonymous minority cadets at the academy who said racial slurs and ignorant comments are common on the academy’s campus. The cadets said that leadership often does not take reports of the incidents seriously.

Soto, a 2003 Coast Guard Academy graduate and a regimental commander who served five years of active duty, was joined at the news conference by local and state civic and community leaders.

“It’s not about pointing fingers. We’re well beyond that,” Soto said. “We just want to uncover, with the help of our federal officials, what’s really happening within the Coast Guard Academy.”

In response, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy jointly issued a letter to Rear Adm. James E. Rendon, superintendent at the academy, calling for a prompt response to the matter and offering assistance if needed.

“As strong supporters of the Academy and its historic role of producing the Coast Guard’s leadership, we are sure you agree that a meaningful, transparent response is required to further advance the institution’s mission,” the letter reads.

“We recognize that the Academy has been engaged in a concerted effort to boost minority enrollment over the last eight years and has shown significant progress in the numbers at the time of matriculation. Higher admission rates have to be coupled with robust retention in order to ensure a higher graduation rate for minority cadets so that Coast Guard leadership ultimately reflects the multicultural makeup of the country’s population. Ensuring that the Academy’s environment and culture are free of any racial animus is critical to achieving such an outcome,” the letter reads.

New London NAACP President Jean Jordan echoed Soto’s calls for an investigation and called on the commandant of the Coast Guard to release institutional data on diversity, to take all allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination seriously and to assign “competent and impartial” investigators to look into the “climate issues” at the academy.

Jordan said the academy consistently has made unfulfilled promises about organizational improvements and lasting changes to make cadets of color feel more welcome, valued and respected.

“It is apparent that the Coast Guard Academy boasts publicly about its commitment to diversity, inclusion and respect but fails to walk the walk at all levels of its organization,” Jordan said.

The Day has a pending Freedom of Information Act request for the number of reports of civil rights incidents of hate, harassment or discrimination at the academy.

The academy’s chief diversity officer, Aram deKoven, in a written statement, said the Coast Guard takes reports of discrimination or mistreatment seriously.

“The Coast Guard Academy is not unique from other military academies and institutions of higher learning. We struggle to eradicate all traces of race and gender bias on our campus,” deKoven said. “And while cadet surveys do not point to widespread discrimination, we know that even one incident is unacceptable. So this is not an idle effort. We are committing people, time, and money to identifying potential barriers to an inclusive climate and then to act precisely to remove them.”

DeKoven said the academy has taken disciplinary action against staff and cadets, including removal from the institution where appropriate.

“Beyond responding, however, we are working aggressively in a variety of ways to detect and eliminate any inherent bias in our processes and have honest exchanges of ideas to help faculty, staff and cadets focus on respect and grow in their understanding of issues of inequity. We welcome help from our alumni, our neighbors and others who are willing to constructively partner with us,” deKoven said.

The academy has sought to address the issues in part by using a so-called Equity Scorecard to look at metrics such as graduation and retention rates and who receives accommodations, recommendations and leadership roles.

The scorecard has not yet been released.

The call for an investigation comes even as Soto and others acknowledged the life-saving work of the Coast Guard in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, making the issue even more relevant so that cadets “know they are valued.”

Soto said Courtney, Blumenthal and Murphy were very vocal in their response to claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military, “and so we hope they take up this issue with the same vigor.”

New London Mayor Michael Passero said the Coast Guard has been a good partner to the city, which will stand and work with Coast Guard officials to offer them help in overcoming any issues.

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, called the allegations of discrimination “troubling.”

Cadets "deserve a culture and environment that is inclusive and not discriminatory. Discrimination is illegal, undermines morale and hurts enlistment,” McGuire said.

Soto said he thought the issues raised by the cadets appear to be cyclical and that the national election likely “emboldened cadets to act in ways they probably didn’t act in the past because it wasn’t acceptable."

g.smith@theday.com

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