Coast Guard Academy whistleblower speaks up on discrimination, retaliation

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Young-McLear, who spent years reporting bullying and harassing behaviors by her superiors, and later faced retaliation for making those complaints, is finally speaking publicly about what happened to her.

The 35-year-old said she chose now to speak out because she will be recognized, along with 50 others, by the National Whistleblowers Center on Tuesday, July 30, designated as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

"I want to use this public opportunity to affirm the dignity of victims and their families while still advocating for honest, efficient and accountable workplace environments in the military," she said.

Young-McLear cited the cases of Marine Corps Lance Corporal Harry Lew and Army Private Danny Chen, who died by suicide after enduring military hazing. Lew's aunt, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., has advocated in Congress for reforming the way the military deals with hazing.

“They didn't survive harassment and therefore cannot tell their stories or serve,” Young-McLear said.

Young-McLear says she endured four years of abuse at the academy, including her supervisor making belittling comments toward her, using her as a scapegoat and undermining her work. She said she exhausted the complaint process, making reports to her Coast Guard chain of command, including senior leadership at the academy and the commandant, and through the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights reporting processes.

"They all failed me. The reporting systems that we have in place failed and I was retaliated against," said Young-McLear, who left the academy this summer for a cybersecurity fellowship under the Department of Homeland Security.

A 2018 report from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General found that Young-McLear, who is black and lesbian, received low marks on an evaluation performance report after making the complaints. The report covers the period from July 2015 through April 2018, and involved an extensive review of documentary evidence and personnel interviews.

Capt. Tony Russell, chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Public Affairs, said in a phone interview Friday that the Coast Guard "accepts and embraces" the findings in the inspector general report, and has used it to "remedy any identified wrongs of the past and to make changes for improved performance going forward."

Young-McLear became a member of the permanent commissioned teaching staff at the academy in 2014. She filed several complaints over the years, alleging harassment and a hostile work environment by the her boss — the head of the management department, a white male — based in part on race, gender and sexual orientation. The inspector general report indicates her complaints were mishandled by academy and Coast Guard officials.

She was told by the officials convening the investigations into her complaints that her allegations were unsubstantiated. However, the findings of the investigators were much more nuanced. The investigator who performed a preliminary inquiry, the least formal investigative process, into her first complaint filed in July 2015 said it "did not afford sufficient detail or depth to fairly conclude whether or not prohibited harassment has occurred.” The investigator recommended an investigation be carried out by someone credentialed in human resources, equal employment opportunity, civil rights matters and/or diversity and inclusion.

Two Coast Guard admirals who handled an investigation into her complaints also found her claims to be unsubstantiated. The investigator, on the other hand, said that while the evidence "failed to reveal blatant acts of discrimination or bullying," when reviewed as a whole, it "creates a picture of offensive conduct towards [Complainant] that is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive."

After Young-McLear’s complaints, the department head went on to bully another member of the academy.

That complainant, a white female civilian employee, alleged harassment and bullying behavior by the department head during and immediately after mandatory bullying and hazing training at the academy in January 2018. The admiral who substantiated her claims, Rear Admiral Joseph Vojvodich, also handled an investigation into Young-McLear’s complaints, which were found to be unsubstantiated.

The academy removed the department head several months after the complaint was filed, on April 24, 2018, citing "a loss of confidence in his ability to effectively lead the department."

Young-McLear said the head of the Coast Guard declined to meet with her to discuss what she experienced, and also declined to provide her with “a formal written apology on behalf of the Coast Guard.”

To add to that, she said, the Coast Guard "has never held anyone accountable for the years of abuse I sustained."

Russell, the Coast Guard public affairs chief, declined to talk about individual personnel actions but said the superintendent of the academy made a public apology with the complainant present in January. In February, the vice commandant met with the complainant and also apologized to her publicly during a meeting of all faculty to discuss the report. In March, the commandant apologized to her in front of the academy and Corps of Cadets, Russell said.

Following the release of the inspector general report, members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, asked the Coast Guard to turn over documents related to its handling of bullying and harassment complaints. Congressional staffers are in the process of reviewing more than a thousand pages of documents that the Coast Guard provided.

Russell highlighted some of the action taken by the Coast Guard in response to the inspector general report, including requiring commanders to provide written justifications for their findings and outcomes in response to bullying and harassment complaints. The Coast Guard also revised its civil rights manual to clarify that whistleblower retaliation complaints should be filed with the DHS inspector general. The manual now also explicitly states that "management officials may not use their authority to take or threaten action against a civilian employee, candidate for civilian employment or a military member for making protected communications to a member of Congress, the inspector general and others."

Additionally, all Coast Guard personnel were required to undergo training on preventing and addressing workplace harassment. The training, however, did not cover workplace bullying. Russell said the Coast Guard was at an 85 percent completion rate with the training. He expects the remaining 15 percent to complete the training by the end of the summer.

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article has been edited to include information on apologies made to the complainant.

Prevalence of workplace bullying

Catherine Mattice Zundel, the founder and CEO of Civility Partners, who conducted a bullying and hazing training at the Coast Guard Academy in early 2018, said academic research on the topic of bullying goes back 40 years. 

Research shows that bullying happens to between 30 percent and 80 percent of the population at some point in their lives, depending on the industry in which someone works, the country in which someone works and other factors, she said. A 2017 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 60.4 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying and that 61 percent of bullies are bosses.

Research also has pointed to the effects that bullying can have on a person's mental health.

"They have found that people who are bullied at work experience stress, anxiety, depression, are more likely to take painkillers or other medications, and are more likely to think of suicide," Mattice Zundel said.

Psychological problems can lead to physical problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease and headaches, she said.

For access to free resources on workplace bullying, visit bit.ly/BullyingRsrc.

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