Note: This story was originally published on July 1, 2019.
Washington — Key House Democrats are backing a bill aimed at improving diversity at New London’s Coast Guard Academy, a move touched off by allegations of discrimination and a racially hostile environment at the school.
Introduced by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the “Coast Guard Academy Improvement Act,” would establish a commission that would make recommendations to foster “a more inclusive and supportive environment” at the academy.
The bill would require the academy to create a recruitment and retention plan for cadets, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds, and permanently establish a minority outreach team.
The legislation would also require the academy to select up to 50 percent of each incoming class from a pool of candidates nominated by members of Congress.
The bill is sponsored by several Democrats besides Thompson, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the head of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Thompson introduced a similar bill at the end of the last Congress. At that time, the Democratic congressman from Mississippi was in the minority and the bill did not advance. But in this Congress, Thompson is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard.
“I am fully confident that if the Coast Guard Academy were to better represent the diverse fabric of this nation, the Coast Guard would only be stronger – and we would only be more secure,” Thompson said. “Accounts make it clear that diversity at the Academy is woefully inadequate, and furthermore, that cadets of diverse backgrounds have had to face racially hostile incidents.”
The academy did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the legislation.
The Coast Guard Academy has been under congressional scrutiny for more than a year by Thompson, Cummings, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and other Democratic lawmakers – including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. The congressional action was provoked by reports of discrimination at the academy and its poor grades on the “Equity Scorecard,” a study by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California that tracks academic data, including graduation rates, by race, ethnicity and gender.
The Equity Scorecard reported that “black/African American cadets have been consistently less likely to graduate than the all-cadet average.”
The scorecard also said black cadets suffered from a disproportionately high share of disciplinary actions.
The lawmakers investigating the school asked the Coast Guard in June of 2018 for a number of documents. They had to set repeated deadlines for that information and for the release of additional documents.
“I must convey my frustration and disappointment that the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security have stonewalled the efforts of this committee, along with the Committee on Oversight and Reform, to conduct oversight of the Coast Guard Academy,” Thompson told Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz during a Homeland Security Committee hearing on April 9.
Shortly after the hearing, the Coast Guard Academy turned over hundreds of pages of documents. But it is not clear whether the academy had responded in full to the lawmakers’ requests – or whether any of that information will be made public.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” said Adam Comis, spokesman for the House Homeland Security Committee.
In 2017, the Eclipse Legacy Fund Governance Committee, a group of academy alumni, wrote the then-superintendent of the Coast Guard, Admiral James Rendon, saying “the undeniable fact remains that the Coast Guard Academy doesn’t attract African American talent in large or consistent numbers that mirror the U.S. population.”
The committee said there were 66 African American cadets, and 22 others who declare 2 or more categories including African American in a cadet population of about 1053.
That means the composition of the cadet classes at the academy was little more than 6 percent, while the U.S. population at that time was about 12 percent black.
“Considering that the Coast Guard Academy remains the primary source of Coast Guard Officers by a nearly 3 to 1 ratio, the lack of African American cadets will translate to a lack of future Coast Guard Officers,” the alumni association wrote Rendon.
It requested information from the academy, including a list of all “implemented systemic changes that ensure sustained recruiting efforts” and the number of cadets divided by race, ethnicity, and gender who were offered appointments in the Coast Guard, the number who accepted appointments, and their retention rates since 2001.
Two years later, retired CDR Mark Harris said the Eclipse Legacy Fund Governance Committee has not received a response from the academy.