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Justice approves terminations of instructor, cadets, following ‘Nazi salute’ photo investigation

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice has approved the recommendations offered by Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Jim Sandy regarding the photo of Division of Corrections Academy trainees making a “Nazi salute” in their class picture, he announced on Monday.

The recommendations include termination of a third Corrections Academy staff member – bringing the total terminations to three; suspension without pay of four additional instructors; and termination of all 31 cadets in the picture.

Sandy submitted his recommendations and an executive summary of the investigative report on the incident on Friday.

The report says the class photo, released in a blurred version by the state on Dec. 5, was taken by and at the direction of Academy instructor Karrie Byrd (her first name is not in the report but appears in a course schedule provided to West Virginia Public Broadcasting and can be found in a search of state employee compensation on the auditor’s website).

It was captioned “Hail Byrd,” A secretary who questioned the photo and the caption said Byrd told her, “That’s why they do that, because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen told Sandy in a cover letter, “With some possible exceptions, participation in the conduct was largely based on ignorance, along with a remarkable and appalling lack of judgment among the cadets, and some members of the Academy staff.”

Nonetheless, she said, DCR expects respect and professionalism, and “messages that reflect hate, intimidation and discriminatory beliefs have no place in our workplace.”

Justice said on Monday, “As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms. 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,” he said. “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.”​

The report was based on 75 interviews. The salute began during the second or third week of the Academy session as a “sign of respect for Byrd.” Some cadets recognized its historical significance and refused to go along with it. Others also understood its significance but felt pressured to go along.

Byrd told investigators she was completely unaware of the significance of the gesture and that it was simply a greeting. But “multiple sources” contradicted her statement.

Two instructors attempted to inform Byrd and the class about the gesture. But one student, who according to 18 fellow cadets, originated the gesture, said, “Look at me, I am black and I am doing it.”

Following the admonition, Byrd continued to assure the cadets the salute was acceptable. “She encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture.”

Byrd had the photo taken several times because not all were participating, the report says. Ten cadets said they complied out of fear of not graduating. The secretary of related Byrd’s Hitler comment said Byrd also told her, “Look, there is nothing wrong with it. We have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating.”

The secretary alerted Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts (her first name is also not in the report), who first reportedly said she should pull it, but then decided to stuff them in the cadets’ packets.

When two other instructors who saw the photo also alerted Daniels-Watts, she said, “Well that is going to bite us in the ass.” Daniels-Watts admitted she found the picture “horrible,” but did nothing about it. When a meeting of Academy staff was called about the picture, she said, “Do I resign now, or what?”

The investigation found additional pictures on social media depicting members of Class 18 and Byrd. In one, cadets surround Byrd and are holding their pictures horizontally below their noses – a gestured used to satirize Hitler and his toothbrush mustache.

The executive summary concludes that there’s no dispute the salute and highly offensive and egregious but the investigation revealed no intentional discrimination.

Sandy told Justice that the four instructors he’s recommended for suspension saw the picture or saw Byrd and her class conducting the salute, but did nothing about it.

In recommending termination of the entire cadet class, he notes that not all participated, and some offered a closed-hand salute in defiance. “Nonetheless, their conduct, without question, has also resulted in far-reaching and harmful perceptions that are the antithesis of the values we strive to attain.”

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