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Not always prepared for 'the population it serves'

The most troubling aspect of the recent inspector general investigation of racial harassment at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is not even the bias and insensitivity that some cadets brought with them when they enrolled. Society at large is roiling with the effects of pervasive racism. It was probably inevitable that among more than 1,000 cadets, there would be some.

Rather, the report details the failure of those in leadership, sworn to uphold the Constitution and employed to protect and serve. For at least five years, the report says, numerous complaints of harassment went uninvestigated or undisciplined or unshared with the Coast Guard's Civil Rights Directorate office.

In other words, between 2013 and 2018, the period covered by the report of the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, leadership found a host of ways to let it slip when cadets were reported for comments, slurs, and in one case, posting themselves with a Confederate flag on Instagram.

The evidence suggests just a small percentage of bad apples. However, the institution that trains future maritime officers to be semper paratus — always ready to serve — must correct any notions of discrimination in its work as the police and rescue force of the homeland waterways. In the course of their duties, Coast Guard personnel encounter both perpetrators and victims of all races. Anyone who would treat people differently because of race or ethnicity is not ready to serve. 

Rear Adm. William Kelly, his staff and the cadet company leaders have a clear mission. Kelly, who took over as superintendent of the academy in May 2019, after the period investigated by the inspector general, told The Day he intends to take the information from the report "and continue to move forward with it."

One task will be for the academy to respond to five recommendations accompanying the report. Since they come from an inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, "recommendations" is a euphemism for their urgency. Senior members of Congress previously have shown skepticism about how earnestly the Coast Guard is trying to reform its attitudes toward minorities. They will want answers about this report, the second since 2018. The Coast Guard commandant is expected to be summoned again to appear before a congressional committee.

The report's recommendations are meant to ensure not only investigation but written documentation of how a complaint is handled; not only discipline but recording what was handed down or why it wasn't; not only the involvement of the in-house antidiscrimination office but, as mandated, the Coast Guard Civil Rights staff; and training cadets on how to recognize and avoid harassing behaviors — not only remedially but well before something can happen.

The report notes that the Coast Guard since May 2019 has been requiring written documentation of the basis for a determination of whether harassment occurred and the evidence reviewed to reach that determiniation.

Even granting that previous leadership at the academy had good intentions, it's clear from the report that they did not take seriously enough that harassing comments are the tip of the iceberg of racism; that the immaturity of still-young adults doesn't excuse them. The timing of this second report when the nation is experiencing an outcry against persistent racial discrimination and deadly force by police suggests the academy is overdue to catch up.

With the clear concerns from Congress and the earlier whistleblower report, the academy had ample time to start observing its own rules and those of the Coast Guard's Civil Rights Manual. It could have turned things around without the public embarassment of this report. Significantly, the cadet corps has reached a milestone of being about one-third minority. Yet a survey of cadets, to which about 10 percent responded, indicates there was more perceived harassment in 2018 than in 2017.

The inspector general, Joseph V. Cuffari, included in his report a brief statement of why his office investigated, and it should resonate with everyone connected to the Coast Guard. "Multiple sources have alleged racial harassment at the Academy. We evaluated Coast Guard’s handling of race-based harassment incidents to determine whether there were issues jeopardizing the Coast Guard’s commitment to broadening its diversity to reflect the population it serves."

The population it serves.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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