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Report: Coast Guard Academy fell short in response to racial harassment

An evaluation of 16 allegations of race-based harassment involving Coast Guard Academy cadets over a five-year period found that many of the allegations were not thoroughly investigated, no disciplinary action was taken even when allegations were substantiated and, in some cases, civil rights staff were not notified of the allegations as required.

The report, titled “The U.S. Coast Guard Academy Must Take Additional Steps to Better Address Allegations of Race-Based Harassment and Prevent Such Harassment on Campus,” was publicly released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, who became the academy’s superintendent on May 30, 2019, said by phone Friday afternoon that the academy was expecting the release of the report, which “continues to highlight the important work that we have to do and the important journey that we’re on.”

The Coast Guard agrees with the five recommendations made in the evaluation and is acting on them, including a May 2019 policy update requiring commanders to document the investigative actions taken in response to harassing misconduct, Kelly said.

“I appreciate the information provided. We are going to take it and continue to move forward with it,” he said.

The inspector general reviewed allegations made between 2013 and 2018 that the academy “was aware of and had sufficient information to investigate and address through internal hate and harassment procedures,” the report said.

Multiple sources, including a group of cadets who spoke to The Day in 2017, have alleged racial harassment at the academy and inadequate response by leadership. Congress was in the midst of looking into the issue when the inspector general announced on its website in late 2018 that it would be reviewing whether the academy has effective processes for reporting, investigating and taking corrective action in response to allegations of race- or ethnicity-based discrimination.

Of the 16 cases reviewed, the inspector general found the academy in six of the cases did not thoroughly investigate the allegations and/or did not take disciplinary actions when the allegations were substantiated.

In six of the cases reviewed by the inspector general, academy officials did not notify civil rights staff of the allegations as required.

"As a result, civil rights staff could not ensure the academy followed procedures, nor could they properly track these incidents to proactively identify and address trends," the report said.

When asked by investigators with the inspector general's office why civil rights staff were not notified of these allegations, the academy did not answer and instead referred the investigators to the Coast Guard's Civil Rights Directorate, according to the report, which does not mention anyone by name.

Kelly said Friday that he regularly meets with the academy's civil rights provider to ensure these cases are properly being tracked.

The review also found that in two cases, cadets involved in the misconduct were repeat offenders.

The report detailed one of those cases as follows: In April 2016, a third-class cadet repeatedly referred to a first-class cadet as the N-word during a conversation. The first-class cadet tried to remove himself from the situation, but the third-class cadet followed him and continued to repeatedly use the racial epithet. The cadet reported the incident to a professor and also informed the professor that cadets used the epithet frequently in the barracks.

The academy launched an investigation into the use of the epithet in the barracks, which also determined that the third-class cadet had used the epithet, but the academy did not discipline him or require him to take respect remediation or note the incident in his official conduct record, the report said.

The cadet eventually was disenrolled from the academy due to a second incident in January 2017, when during a conversation with two other cadets, they remarked that many Asian American cadets were moving into rooms near theirs, he used an ethnic slur and proposed placing a sign at a water fountain near their dorm rooms banning Asian American cadets from using it, the report said.

The other two cadets involved were each found in violation of a Class II offense — failure to demonstrate proper leadership — for participating in a conversation of a discriminatory nature, and each received two weeks of room restriction and 30 demerits, the report said.

The investigation that followed the April 2016 incident uncovered “three additional allegations recent and specific enough for the academy to investigate at the time,” the report said. But the investigating officer did not pursue the allegations further, and when asked why, he said he was following “oral instructions not to go on a ‘witch hunt,’” the report said.

Kelly, who was not at the academy at the time, said "that's not the culture or climate that we want to portray or have on board the academy” and that he has to exemplify that with his actions, including properly evaluating these allegations when they come across his desk.

By not thoroughly investigating nor consistently disciplining cadets, the academy missed opportunities to "demonstrate to cadets their behavior was unacceptable, prevent repeated misconduct, and show cadets reporting harassment that the academy takes these reports seriously," the inspector general said.

In the report's recommendations, the inspector general said there should be mandatory training for academy personnel and cadets on how to investigate incidents of harassment, and specifically for cadets on recognizing and avoiding harassing behaviors.

“This is about more than just training," Kelly said. "This is about education and providing an environment here so that students believe they can have real and honest discussions."

He said he spent an hour and a half on the phone Thursday night having an “open and honest dialogue” with the academy’s diversity council, called the Genesis Council, answering members' questions and allaying their concerns "given the current state of affairs in America."

One of the cadets, who will help to oversee the incoming Class of 2024's summer training, asked about having conversations with the new cadets, called swabs, about what's going on across the country.

"I said, 'That's exactly why we're here to provide you the tools, the support and the environment where you can practice having those conversation because we need you to have those conversations when you become an officer in our service,'" Kelly said.

In December 2018, the inspector general sent a questionnaire to 1,072 cadets to which only 122 cadets responded. Of those, 36 said “their decision to report harassment would be influenced by whether they believed they would be negatively impacted by the reporting,” the report said.  

In interviews with staff from the inspector general's office, current and former cadets also identified concerns about negative consequences, the report said.

A survey taken by cadets in 2017 and 2018, known as Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute Organizational Climate Survey, showed that more than 70% of perceived disparate treatment based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion goes unreported at the academy.

Fridays' report follows a separate review by the inspector general, released in December 2018, which substantiated allegations of reprisal against a lieutenant commander, a black, gay female who was stationed at the academy, and a congressional hearing on the Coast Guard’s handling of harassment and bullying complaints.

In a statement following the release of the latest report on Friday, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform; Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security; Rep. Jamie Raskin, chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Rep. Lou Correa, chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, issued a statement saying they plan to convene a congressional hearing "to consider these urgent findings." They said they expect Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, to testify.

j.bergman@theday.com

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