CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia government review of a class photo showing trainees for Department of Corrections jobs making “Nazi salutes” has concluded that most did so out of ignorance.
The salute began with one student who started it as a joke, was embraced by the instructor who later said “it’s because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler” and concluded with a disturbing image of uniformed class members on state letterhead.
“The investigation to this point reflects that, with some possible exceptions, participation in the conduct was largely based on ignorance, along with a remarkable and appalling lack of judgment,” according to the introduction of report findings distributed today.
“Nonetheless, we expect and demand that our employees act in a way that contributes to an environment of respect and professionalism among our ranks.”
The photograph showing more than 30 trainees for jobs in West Virginia’s jail system drew expressions of shock and disgust when a blurred version was released by state officials Dec. 5.
“Messages that reflect hate, intimidation, and discriminatory beliefs have no place in our workplace, and are incompatible with our mission to protect both our incarcerated population and the citizens of West Virginia,” state Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen wrote in an introduction to today’s released report.
The investigation was the result of 75 interviews. The state publicly released six pages of materials, including an executive summary, but not a full report. Today’s release did not include an unaltered image of the class photo or a list of class members.
The posed group shot depicts most class members making the salute with outstretched arms and an open, out-facing hand often associated with Nazis. Some class members are making a closed fist salute, though.
The photo, shown on letterhead with the state symbol, is titled “Hail Byrd.” The instructor, Karrie Byrd, taught several classes, including “Cultural Diversity.”
Firings and suspensions
Byrd was fired along with two other staff members. Four academy instructors known to have seen the photograph without reporting its contents have been recommended for suspension without pay.
And all of the class members making either an open-handed or closed-handed salute in the photograph are being recommended for firing.
The report notes that some posed unwillingly, following what they perceived to be an order from Instructor Byrd to do the “Hail Byrd” because they feared they would not graduate, or would be disciplined for failure to follow the order of a superior.
“Nonetheless, their conduct, without question, has also resulted in the far-reaching and harmful perceptions that are the antithesis of the values we strive to attain,” according to recommendations from state Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy to Gov. Jim Justice.
.@jsandyWV, @WVDMAPS Secretary, talks with @HoppyKercheval about Governor Jim Justice’s decision for action on the Nazi salute group photo which came from a WVDNR training class. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIAoe1 pic.twitter.com/QIgMP5DSrO
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) December 30, 2019
Justice, in a statement issued from his office, said he has approved the recommendations.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice stated.
“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.”
How it started
The report concluded that the hand gesture started the second or third week of the training class with one class member and then others following along “as a sign of respect for Byrd.”
“Several cadets recognized it for its historical implications and refused to go along with the class. Others who knew the implications of the gesture felt pressure to fit in and joined in.”
Sandy, the public safety secretary speaking today on “Talkline,” said that if the instructor had made clear this was inappropriate, “it could have been stopped within 10 seconds.”
Instead, the practice continued.
“Those voicing concerns were assured by those comfortable with the gesture, that since there was no racial motivation on their part, the gesture was acceptable,” according to the report.
Again, the uncomfortable students could have taken their concerns up the chain of command to stop the situation, Sandy said.
“They had the ability to go to the director of the Academy and state this behavior is taking place,” he said, “but they chose not to.”
Byrd, the instructor, later told investigators “she was completely unaware of the historical or racial implications of the gesture and reported it was simply a greeting.”
But, the report noted, “the statement Byrd provided during her interview was heavily contradicted by multiple sources during the investigation.”
Two other instructors became aware the salute was continuing to be used and, independently of one another, told Byrd and the class it was inappropriate.
The student who was later identified by fellow cadets as the one who started the salute “stood up in defense of himself and the other cadets making the gesture and said, ‘Look at me I am black, and I am doing it. … ‘” according to the report.
The investigation revealed that Byrd told the class, apparently in response to the admonishments, that she saw nothing wrong with the gesture and allowed it to continue.
The class photo
Just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, Basic Training Class 18 concluded a little more than a month of instruction and lined up in two rows for what would normally be a celebratory photo to commemorate the milestone.
Those who finished the class would be assigned to work right away in one of West Virginia’s correctional institutions.
Byrd, object of the salute, set up the photo and was, in fact, the photographer.
Multiple cadets reported the photo was taken several times because not everyone would participate in the gesture. Ten 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,” the report stated. “Seven of those cadets, in order to comply with Byrd’s direction hut not make the gesture, held up a closed fist.”
Sandy said the recommendation to fire the students who made the closed fist salute was difficult. In the end, he said, he could not justify placing them in corrections systems jobs where retaliation might occur.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said. “But when all is said and done, these individuals were going into a Correctional facility.”
Distribution of the photo
Class photos were forwarded to a member of the Corrections secretarial staff under normal procedure.
In this instance, The secretary reported asking Byrd “What are you all doing in the picture?”
Byrd responded, “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,” according to the report.
The secretary stated that Byrd directed her to caption the picture “Hail Byrd.” The secretary later told investigators that Byrd told her “that’s why they do that because rm a hard-ass like Hitler.”
The secretary found the photo offensive. She took it to Captain Annette Daniels-Watts, another trainer for classes such as “Legal Issues” and “Offender Supervision & Discipline.”
The secretary reported Daniels-Watts stating, “Oh, I should just pull it, but since you have them all already printed you might as well go ahead and stuff them into the packets.”
Two more instructors saw the “Hail Byrd” photo as it was being prepared for distribution and took concerns to Daniels-Watts. One recalled Daniels-Watts saying, “Well, that is going to bite us in the ass.”
Daniels-Watts later told investigators she found the photo “horrible,” but never addressed Byrd, had the pictures pulled from the packets, or reported the situation to her supervisor.
When a meeting for Academy Staff was called regarding the picture, Daniels-Watts’ response was “Do I resign now or what…” and “I saw the picture and did nothing,” according to the report.
Sandy said West Virginia religious leaders are being consulted to strengthen aspects of Corrections training that focus on cultural sensitivity.
Meanwhile, the executive summary concludes ignorance was the main factor, leading to an unacceptable image.
“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 ethnic group,” the report concluded.
“Rather, contributing factors included poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure, and fear of reprisal.”