West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Monday approved the recommended firings of all correctional officer cadets who participated in a Nazi salute during a class photo, as well as the firing of an academy staff member who failed to report the content of the picture.
Justice released a statement Monday calling the incident “completely unacceptable.” A summary of the investigation into the photo was released along with Justice’s statement.
The firings come at the recommendation of West Virginia Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. In addition to the firings, Sandy recommenced four academy instructors be suspended without pay. Two academy instructors and a cadet were previously fired as a result of the incident.
The photo shows the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class #18, from October and November, giving a straight-arm salute. The photo also has a line of text that reads, “Hail Byrd,” a reference to an “Instructor Byrd,” according to the investigation.
“There is no dispute that the ‘Hail Byrd’ gesture and photograph were highly offensive and egregious in appearance, but the investigation did not reveal any overt motivation or intent that this was a discriminatory act towards any racial, religious or ethic group,” the overview of the investigation says.
“Rather, contributing factors included poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure and fear of reprisal.”
The investigation into the photo included 58 interviews and determined that the gesture was done with instructor Karrie Byrd’s knowledge and the “Hail Byrd” photo was taken “by and at the direction of Instructor Byrd.”
According to the investigation, “Multiple cadets reported the photo was taken several times due to not everyone participating in the gesture. Ten of the cadets reported they did not make the gesture until Byrd told them to. These cadets stated that they only did it at that time due to fear of not graduating for disobeying the direction of an instructor.”
Seven of the cadets help up a closed fist, the investigation states.
When confronted about the photo by a secretary who found the photo offensive, Byrd said, “that’s why they do that because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler,” according to the investigation.
The investigation also states an instructor confronted Byrd’s class about the connotations of the gesture. A student told the instructor, “Look at me. I am black, and I am doing it.” The investigation notes the instructor reprimanded the class, but that Byrd told the group “she saw nothing wrong with the gesture and allowed it to continue.”
The summary of the investigation was sent to Sandy by Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen. Sandy then sent his recommendations to Justice.
“This event has saddened, disappointed and embarrassed DCR leadership and membership, and we deeply regret the incident,” Jividen wrote to Sandy. “We have engaged with faith leaders and anti-defamation to enhance and enrich our training opportunities in order to guard against future incidents such as this one.”
Sandy wrote to Justice that the cadets’ “conduct, without question, has … resulted in the far-reaching and harmful perceptions that are the antithesis of the values we strive to attain.”
Sandy also commended the transparency of the West Virginia’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety during the investigation. The photo was of the cadets was released by the department.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said in his statement. “I also said that this act needed to result in real consequences – terminations and dismissals. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government.
“We have a lot of good people in our Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. But this incident was completely unacceptable. Now, we must continue to move forward and work diligently to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”