Coast Guard Academy's handling of discrimination reports probed

The United States Coast Guard Academy is seen April 25, 2014, from the air. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General is looking into how the school handles allegations of discrimination, and inadequate action by its leadership.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The United States Coast Guard Academy is seen April 25, 2014, from the air. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General is looking into how the school handles allegations of discrimination, and inadequate action by its leadership. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General is looking into how the Coast Guard Academy handles allegations of discrimination, and inadequate action by academy leadership.

The inspector general's review will "determine whether the Coast Guard Academy has effective processes for reporting, investigating and taking corrective action in response to allegations of race or ethnicity-based discrimination," according to a description on its website.

The academy is "fully cooperating," spokesman David Santos said in an email. "It is important for us to examine our policies and practices, and where necessary, take action to improve them."

There is already an inquiry from Connecticut lawmakers, and some of their colleagues in Congress, asking for documents showing any allegations of harassment and bullying made by cadets or faculty members, and how they were handled. The lawmakers requested the documents by July 13, but the Coast Guard has yet to provide them in full.

U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn., are requesting the documents. They are planning to travel to the academy this fall with the head of the Coast Guard to discuss how the academy is addressing these issues.

It's unclear what prompted the review by the inspector general. Congress can request such an inquiry or the inspector general can initiate one on its own, for example.

"The fact that they're devoting resources to it shows that this is an issue that has public interest," Courtney said. "There are affirmative, systemic recommendations that they share and that's helpful."

Arlen Morales, a spokeswoman for the office, said these kinds of reviews can take six to nine months, or sometimes a year, to complete. The review was initiated within the last couple of months. Once complete, the inspector general will issue a report with its recommendations.

The report "should provide a welcome source of facts and evidence and possible remedies," Blumenthal said.

"There should be zero tolerance for any hint of racial discrimination," he added.

Santos, the academy spokesman, said there are a number of processes available to report discrimination including the ability to contact personnel from the Civil Rights Office on campus or initiate a formal investigation. The processes include oversight from people outside the academy "to ensure issues are fairly and equitably addressed," Santos said.

"Discrimination shouldn't be tolerated anywhere, especially against those who want to serve this country," Murphy said. "I hope the Inspector General investigation gets to the root of the problem and leads to meaningful changes at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy."

A report developed by the Center for Urban Education at the request of the Coast Guard Academy, and released publicly in April, found that "ample opportunities exist" for the academy to improve "the overall academic experiences" of minority cadets. Specifically, it found that black cadets were more likely than their white peers to be more harshly punished for similar offenses, and found gaps in graduation and disenrollment rates for minorities, particularly black cadets, and women. The report issued a number of recommendations, including studying institutional policies to ensure they are fair to all and creating an academic and social environment that supports black cadets.

The academy's board of trustees was on campus this week from Wednesday through Friday for its annual fall meeting. Board Chairman Gary Rasicot said by email Friday afternoon that the board discussed the inspector general's review during the meeting.

"The board remains supportive of all the work that academy leadership, faculty and staff are doing to improve outcomes for minority cadets," Rasicot said in the email.

He said the academy has implemented some of the recommendations from the CUE report, "including the expansion of diversity and inclusion training, the establishment of cadet achievement inquiry teams and the collection, review and re-evaluation of cadet data as it relates to student outcomes."

Santos said the academy also is hiring more personnel for its Office of Inclusion and Diversity.

Reports of racial discrimination at the academy surfaced in late summer 2017, when a group of minority cadets told The Day racial slurs, ignorant comments and instances of disrespect are common on campus. A few months later, an investigation found that two white cadets harassed one of their black classmates after they changed the desktop background on his computer to the Mississippi state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem, and played the song "If the South Woulda Won."

The New London chapter of the NAACP has received complaints of discrimination from cadets and staff. The group has met with members of Congress about the complaints, which they've declined to describe in detail to avoid outing those who made them.

The issue is not exclusive to cadets. Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Day on July 21, 2017, shows that all 24 incidents reported through the Coast Guard's official discrimination complaint process from 2007 to 2017 came from faculty or staff. All of the incidents resulted in "no finding of discrimination." The majority of the reports were made by women. Most did not provide their race. Of the twelve who did, two identified as black, one identified as Hispanic and the rest identified as white.

Data from the same FOI request shows that 14 of the 23 incidents reported through the Coast Guard's official anti-harassment/hate process from 2007 to 2017 came from faculty or staff. Only seven of the 23 incidents were substantiated. The majority of the reports were made by women. Again, most did not provide their race; of the four who did, three identified as African-American and one identified as white.

In late April 2018, the academy removed the head of its management department after an investigation found that he bullied a subordinate, but allowed him to remain on the permanent teaching staff.

j.bergman@theday.com

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