Colorado Springs, Colo. — The head of the Air Force Academy stood all his 4,000 cadets at attention Thursday to deliver a message on racial slurs found written on message boards at the academy’s preparatory school.
Chins in and chests out, the cadets were flanked by 1,500 officers, sergeants, athletic coaches and civilian professors inside cavernous Mitchell Hall. Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria told them to take out their smartphones and record his words.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” he said.
Silveria spoke as investigators interviewed cadet candidates at the prep school, where five black students woke up Tuesday to find “Go Home” followed by the epithet scrawled on message boards outside their rooms.
Sources at the academy said there appeared to be a single vandal involved, judging by the handwriting.
“Security Forces are looking into the matter,” Lt. Col. Allen Herritage said in an email. “We’re unable to release any additional information at this time due to the ongoing investigation.” No additional details were released Friday.
Silveria said he called the families of the five prep school students who were the objects of the slurs.
His speech quickly became a widely viewed video online, coming in the aftermath of racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the debate about NFL players kneeling for the national anthem.
“We would also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what is going on in our country. Things like Charlottesville, Ferguson, the protests in the NFL,” he said.
Silveria, a veteran fighter pilot who directed the air war in the Middle East, took command at the school in August. The academy has struggled with sexual misconduct problems several times in recent years, and the 1985 academy graduate and son of an Air Force master sergeant has repeatedly told cadets and staff that his highest priority is ensuring a climate of dignity and respect. Silveria enrolled at the academy a year after it graduated its first female cadets.
About 29 percent of the academy’s cadets were minorities in 2015, according to the school’s website. Ten percent were Hispanic, 10 percent Asian and Pacific islander, 8 percent black and 1 percent Native American.
The preparatory school has a 10-month program for potential cadets who applied for the four-year academic and military program at the academy but were not accepted. The goal is to help them meet academy requirements.
The prep school usually accepts about 240 students. The academy itself has about 4,000 students.
Racial slurs are legal in the rest of society, but not in the military, where their use is the kind of conduct that can be court-martialed. Those who wrote the slurs could face charges of violating orders and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Silveria, who took command at the school in August, has told cadets and staff repeatedly that his highest priority is ensuring a climate of “dignity and respect.” He called that a “red line” that can’t be crossed without severe repercussions.
After the speech, he said the Thursday gathering, which drew nearly all of the academy’s personnel, was not mandatory.
The general said having the school’s officers take time to come to the speech showed their dedication to stamping out racism at the school, where about a third of cadets are minorities.
“The most important message there was not from me,” he said.
Silveria wants his cadets and other troops angry about what happened at the preparatory school.
“You should be outraged,” he told them.
He said Thursday’s show of opposition to racism should counter any impact on recruiting minority cadets.
“I’m not worried at all after what we demonstrated today,” he said.
The public display Thursday is in contrast to how the academy has dealt with controversy in recent years, with probes into a variety of issues from sexual assault to an on-campus death dealt with behind a veil of secrecy.
After the speech, Silveria said he thinks dealing with the racial slurs in public is important.
“I wanted to make it clear, this is not something I am keeping from anyone,” he said. “We have to talk about what that means.”
Associated Press contributed.
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