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Thursday, July 18, 2024

OIG: Coast Guard Academy Did Not Always Follow Procedure in Racial Harassment Allegations

Of 16 reported allegations of race-based harrassment involving cadets at the Coast Guard Academy, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found the Academy did not always follow proper procedure.

OIG evaluated the handling of racial harassment at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy following allegations from multiple sources. In particular, it examined 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.

Coast Guard policy, which applies to the Academy, defines prohibited
harassment as “unwelcome conduct that has the purpose or effect of
unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an
intimidating, offensive, or hostile environment on the basis of an individual’s
protected status, including race, color, religion, national origin, political
affiliation, or any other basis protected by law”.

As of September 2019, there were 1,069 cadets enrolled at the Academy, with 34 percent of the cadets identifying as minorities. As part of its evaluation, OIG sent questionnaires to all cadets, but only 122 responded.

During its review, OIG identified 16 allegations of race-based harassment involving cadets 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 watchdog identified issues in how the Academy addressed 11 of them. First, in six incidents, OIG found that the Academy did not thoroughly investigate the allegations and/or did not discipline cadets. In some instances, cadets committed similar misconduct again. The Academy also did not include civil rights staff as required in six instances (including two of the instances noted previously). Therefore, civil rights staff could not properly track these incidents to proactively identify trends and offer the Academy assistance. In addition, in one incident involving potential hate allegations, the Academy did not follow the Coast Guard process for addressing hate incidents. Finally, the OIG review determined race-based harassment is underreported at the Academy for various reasons, including concerns about negative consequences for reporting allegations. Underreporting is especially concerning because OIG’s questionnaire results and interviews indicate harassing behaviors continue at the Academy. 

OIG made five recommendations to the Coast Guard:

  1. To the extent feasible, investigate all incidents involving race- or ethnicity-based harassment, documenting investigative actions taken in response to such incidents, including the basis for decisions not to investigate a particular incident. 
  2. Require the reasons for disciplinary decisions be documented in writing, including the decision not to take disciplinary action, after each investigation of a race- or ethnicity-based harassment incident. 
  3. Ensure appropriate notification is given to civil rights staff of all alleged misconduct when the nature of the misconduct, regardless of intent, could reasonably relate to race or ethnicity. 
  4. Provide mandatory training for Academy personnel and cadets involved in investigating incidents of harassment or hate on applicable policies and procedures regarding how to properly handle these incidents. 
  5. Provide mandatory training to cadets on how to recognize and avoid harassing behaviors. 

Coast Guard concurred with the recommendations. In response to the first recommendation, Coast Guard stated that it already requires commanding officers to investigate all incidents involving race- or ethnicity-based harassment. A May 2019 update to the Civil Rights Manual now also requires commanding officers to “articulate, in writing, the basis for the determination of whether harassment and/or bullying occurred, and the evidence reviewed to reach the determination.” OIG responded that while the requirement is in place, in reality this is not always done.

In response to the second recommendation, Coast Guard said it is in the process of updating its policies to require written documentation of the reasons for no administrative or disciplinary action in cases where harassment is substantiated and anticipates completion by December 31, 2020. 

Regarding the third recommendation, Coast Guard said its policy already requires commanding officers to notify the local Civil Rights Service Providers upon notification of a complaint of prohibited harassment. Coast Guard is also updating training courses for anti-harassment and hate incident investigations for Commanding Officers, Officers in Charge, and individuals assigned as Investigating Officers. 

Coast Guard is considering ways to improve and update investigator training to meet the fourth recommendation, and to provide investigators the necessary tools to ensure they appropriately investigate incidents. Completion is expected by December 31, 2020. 

Finally, in response to the fifth recommendation, Coast Guard said provides civil rights awareness training; sexual assault awareness and prevention training; initial core values training; and, if needed, core values remediation training. It added that cadets also receive Bystander Intervention training at various points during the 200-week training program, which empowers cadets to intervene if they see, among other problematic behaviors, sexual harassment. OIG responded that the documentation provided does not show training material that is preventative in nature, and that it will close this recommendation only upon receipt of documentation of mandatory training for cadets that teaches them to recognize when they or their peers commit harassing behaviors.

Discrimination has often overshadowed the work of the Coast Guard and its Academy. In 2018, a whistleblower report detailed four years of racial abuse and sexual discrimination at the Academy. The whistleblower 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 process, but that the reporting systems failed and she was then the subject of retaliation.

In December 2019, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at preventing sexual assault and retaliation in the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Sexual Misconduct Prevention Act creates a committee responsible for advising the secretary of Homeland Security on how to prevent sexual misconduct—along with retaliation and social ostracism for reporting such conduct—in the Coast Guard and for recommending changes to the policies, programs, and practices of the service and its academy.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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