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West Virginia correctional cadets who gave Nazi salute in photo will all be fired

Posted at 7:32 PM, Dec 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-30 20:36:50-05

(NBC) -West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Monday he has approved the recommendations from a report calling for the firing of all correctional officer cadets who participated in a Nazi salute during a class photo.

The photo of Basic Training Class 18, released by the state's Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety on Dec. 5 with the employees’ faces blurred, shows about 30 uniformed trainees posing with their right arms raised, most of them with their hands also extended. The words “Hail Byrd!” also appear at the top of the image.

Three people — two academy trainers and a cadet — were fired days after the photo was released and 34 others suspended without pay amid the investigation by the department and its Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

According to the investigation summary, the use of the gesture began two to three weeks into training as one that the cadets have described as a "sign of respect" for an individual identified as "Instructor Byrd."

Byrd told investigators she was unaware of the “historical or racial implications of the gesture” and reported it was “simply a greeting," according to the report. But her statement was contradicted by multiple sources, the report released Monday says.

"The investigation disclosed that she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture," the report states. "Additionally, Byrd appeared to overrule the corrective actions taken by others and assured the cadets the behavior was acceptable."

The class photos, including the "Hail Byrd'' picture, were forwarded to a member of the secretarial staff as is standard procedure. A secretary reported asking Byrd, "What are you all doing in the picture?" Byrd told her "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 stated that Byrd directed her to caption the picture "Hail Byrd," according to the report, and told the secretary the students say that “because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”

The reportrecommends the termination of an additional academy staff member who failed to report the content of the class photo, suspension without pay for four academy instructors who are currently “known to have seen the photograph and failed to report its content or to have witnessed ... this conduct and while making attempts to stop it, failed to take the necessary steps to report the conduct."

The report states some cadets "only followed what they perceived to be an order from Instructor Byrd to do the 'Hail Byrd' for the photograph because they feared they would not graduate, or would be disciplined for failure to follow the order of a superior."

Still, the report continues, "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."

The salute not only damaged the reputation of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation but "also negatively impacts morale across the workforce," the report states.

The governor said in a statement released Monday that he had reviewed the factual information regarding the incident that was provided by Jeff Sandy, the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety's secretary, and had approved all of the recommendations.

“I expressed my thanks to him and the entire department for quickly getting this report done," Justice said.

“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms," Justice said, adding that "this act needed to result in real consequences — terminations and dismissals."

The governor also reiterated an earlier statement that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated on his 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 in his statement. "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.”

By Janelle Griffith