West Virginia’s governor fired a group of recently graduated corrections officers Monday, after they made a gesture resembling a Nazi salute in their class photo. Governor Jim Justice also fired a staffer Monday at the state’s corrections officer academy, the third staffer terminated in the scandal, and suspended four instructors without pay for failing to report the picture.
“This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government,” Justice said in a statement. “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.” Officials didn’t specify how many of the new graduates were fired.
The photo made national news in early December. Two instructors and a cadet were fired at the time, and 34 other people, including everyone else in the photograph, were suspended.
An investigation into the photo found that the conduct was “largely based on ignorance,” Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen said in a letter to Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. In a summary of the investigation’s findings, Jividen wrote the probe didn’t find “any overt motivation or intent that this was a discriminatory act.”
Some cadets started using the gesture as a “sign of respect” for an instructor at the academy with the last name Byrd, according to Jividen’s letter. The words “Hail Byrd!” were added to the top of the class photo that shows the graduating cadets raising their arms high.
“They do that because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler,” a secretary said Byrd told her, according to the summary of the findings. The investigation found that Byrd took the photo and had to retake it a few times because everyone didn’t initially participate in the gesture.
Ten cadets said they made the gesture because Byrd told them to, and they feared they wouldn’t be able to graduate if they disobeyed an instructor’s direction. An unnamed instructor brought concerns about the photo to a captain at the academy, according to the summary.
“Well that is going to bite us in the ass,” the captain said, according to the instructor.