AP NEWS

What’s wrong at the Coast Guard Academy?

March 7, 2019

An avalanche of crushing headlines about an abysmal culture at the Coast Guard Academy began in the fall of 2017, with reporting by The Day’s Julia Bergman on complaints of discrimination by minority cadets.

This was a powerful story in which four cadets, speaking anonymously, talked about the casual use of racial slurs and routine instances of discrimination they experienced. Even worse, they said, was the tacit acceptance of such behavior by academy leadership.

“If you bring it up, it’s considered unorthodox. You are looked at as the problem,” one cadet said.

The story the cadets told was so unsettling that it elicited a strong response by a range of politicians, including then state Rep. Chris Soto of New London, a Hispanic graduate of the academy, and city Mayor Michael Passero, who joined representatives of the New London NAACP and the ACLU of Connecticut at a news conference to call for an investigation.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined in, writing to the academy superintendent to ask for a “meaningful transparent response” to the complaints.

A year and a half later, I haven’t seen much of anything in the way of a meaningful response.

In fact, the rollout of bad headlines has continued in that time, while the Coast Guard has stonewalled attempts at investigating an expanding list of troubling problems at the academy.

In April of 2018, a report by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, looking at enrollment data, retention rates and disciplinary action at the academy, found that black cadets are more likely than their peers to face inequalities.

The report found African-American cadets faced disciplinary action at a higher rate than any other group, had lower pass rates for core courses and lower graduation rates.

Asian and African-American cadets also were more likely to resign than their peers.

In the summer of 2018, Courtney, Elijah Cummings, then ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Bennie G. Thompson, ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, wrote to the Coast Guard commandant, citing news stories about an academy officer’s demotion for bullying, and asked for “all documents” pertaining to incidents of harassment or bullying in the past three years and investigations and settlements reached in each case.

The first response from the Coast Guard included documents so heavily redacted they could hardly be read. In response, the Coast Guard sent more documents with fewer redactions but still heavily redacted.

In November, the three wrote again, saying: “To date, our investigation has been impeded by an ongoing lack of transparency from the Coast Guard. We strongly urge the Coast Guard to act in good faith to provide all documents requested.”

As March now rolls toward April, they are still waiting.

“I know that we are awaiting and fully expecting the arrival of more documentation,” a Courtney spokesman said Thursday.

Sadly, tolerance for stonewalling starts to look like tolerance for the underlying problems of harassment and bullying.

Meanwhile, the bad headlines have continued.

In one especially egregious case, a federal report concluded the academy retaliated against a black female officer who had filed a complaint about being harassed and bullied by an instructor.

Earlier this month, The Day reported on multiple reports of self-harming behavior, referred in an email by a captain at the academy as “suicide ideations/attempts” by cadets.

Then this week a story broke the news that reports of unwanted sexual contact are on the rise at the academy, increasing from 8 percent in 2016 to 12.4 percent last year.

More alarming, 45 percent of female cadets said they were sexually harassed last year, according to The Connecticut Mirror.

The academy’s public affairs, when I left a message asking for a comment on the sexual harassment story, never called back.

Courtney, when I asked for a reaction to the new report of rising sexual harassment against women, said in a statement: “These cadets deserve better, and the American people deserve better.”

You can say that again.

Better yet, maybe the congressman should do something besides writing another letter.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com