Photo Credit: Sophie Scopazzi

EXCLUSIVE: Cal Maritime Commandant Suspended After Speaking Out Against Sexual, Racial Harassment 

David Lewis
Total Views: 11617
December 27, 2021

Students, faculty say the academy has history of ignoring cadet safety and wellness concerns

By David Lewis

After a student’s racially and sexually threatening texts to another cadet went public, one of Cal Maritime’s faculty commandants forwarded the messages to the student body, loudly condemning the vile behavior and exhorting students and staff to treat each other with respect. She was suspended less than a day later, and less than a week before she was to rotate out prior to deployment with the US Army. 

Sgt. 1st Class Carissa Lombardo, Cal Maritime’s commandant of maritime policy and management, was suspended with pay after forwarding a racially and sexually abusive text thread to students on campus in an email that vociferously condemned the abuse and questioned why students weren’t demanding more of their peers. 

“I ask again… WHERE ARE YOU? Where are you Cadets?” she asked in the letter, which also contained the incendiary messages themselves. “If you’re going to stand against hate, then stand up against ALL types of hate!”

In the letter, she also addresses the failure of the school to intervene. 

“Where are you Faculty? Where are you Staff? Where are you Senior Leadership? NOBODY has publicly addressed this. WHO is standing up for this female Cadet? WHO is standing up for ANY Cadet who has been targeted thru anonymous means? 

Nobody. Because you are only speaking out against specific names attached to specific messages.

If you’re going to stand against hate, stand against ALL hate!”

Commandant speaks out; is suspended

“I was first informed of my suspension on 19 NOV; however, my suspension letter is officially dated as of 18 NOV,” said Lombardo in an email interview with gCaptain. “I was made aware of this through a text message from my immediate supervisor that said, “Carissa, you’ve been placed off work on paid leave for the time being.” He didn’t even use the word ‘suspension’ in that text message, so I was very confused and unaware of why that was happening.”

Lombardo says she was not counseled prior to or after the suspension, and is still unclear on the school’s justification. (CSUM declined to speak about personnel issues, saying they were obligated by law not to do so.) 

“Since then, the only reason I’ve been given regarding my suspension is that I used Cal Maritime’s email system in an “unauthorized/unlawful” manner,” she said. “I do not know what was unauthorized or unlawful about me sending an email to all cadets, because nobody [at the school] has answered me. As a commandant, I am authorized to send emails to all Cal Maritime Cadets.” 

She said that, although she sent the message from the central “Office of the Commandant” email account, one she and the other commandant’s all had access to, and the only one containing the addresses of all the students. 

“It was imperative that I address all cadets and not just those in my company, because the hate speech affected cadets among all three companies, not just mine,” she added.

Sarah Kidwell, director of public affairs for CSUM, said the academy could not comment on faculty investigation issues by law, even if the subject of such chose to do so, but in response to questions about Lombardo’s suspension wrote: “All employees sign an agreement stating that they have read, understood, and will comply with email standards and protocols before they are given access to Cal Maritime’s network and email services. They are also provided with mandatory privacy and security training prior to the granting of network and email services.”

After the racist messages had been shared around campus, CSUM President Rear Admiral Thomas Cropper (ret.) gave a speech to the cadets that addressed offenders but angered students by failing to acknowledge the victims. 

The message also failed to identify the level of the threats and harassment; in it he describes his reaction to the threatened forcible rape of a female Cal Maritime student in vague terms that downplay the severity of the incident: “In particular, I was extremely discouraged to read a text conversation between our cadets with words expressed that are offensive, spiteful and highly disappointing,” he said, adding that the event was under investigation. 

Of concern to Lombardo was that the “investigation” Cropper alluded to in his address didn’t appear to exist in the main.

“It is my understanding that there never was an investigation – this is based on the female cadet [who had received the abusive texts] telling me that not one person from senior leadership has reached out to her regarding this incident, which occurred on [November 7th],” said Lombardo, who added that had last spoken with the victim on December 13. 

“Again, if there was an investigation, nobody reached out to the female or let her know what the results of the investigation were. The cadet did tell me that the former Title IX employee had pulled the cadet aside after formation one morning and told her to not say anything about the messages she received.”

Lombardo noted that the cadet in question had already posted screenshots and shared them with resident hall officers and other cadets; to Lombardo’s understanding, the content of the texts had already been made public and were widely disseminated among students. She added that she had received the permission of the cadet to share them, and her support and gratitude after doing so.

“[She] is angered that the school suspended me for standing up for her when nobody else would,” said Lombardo, who believes that her suspension stemmed from speaking out.

“I absolutely feel that Cal Maritime’s senior leadership has retaliated against me in the form of my suspension,” she said. “Nobody spoke with me after I sent my email or prior to suspending me. They literally just suspended me in less than 24 hours of sending my email. 

“My letter states that a suspension is utilized to conduct an investigation ‘that may lead to formal notice of disciplinary action.’ I personally feel that my suspension is a disciplinary action of itself. I was unable to do my job as a Commandant and was denied access to campus grounds,” she went on. “They even denied my request to access campus to pack up my office. A colleague had to do it for me.”

Lombardo, who said the notice of her suspension was dated November 18, finally received the findings from the school’s HR department on December 17th, a month later. She said the school found that, as for an “Alleged breach of confidentiality, resulting in exposure of protected witness information related to an active police investigation: It was confirmed that there was no breach of confidentiality that resulted in exposure of protected witness information related to an active police investigation.” As for “Alleged interference with university efforts to determine the source of the anonymous inflammatory text sent to a cadet: the available information was not adequate and did not fully support these allegations.”

Those charges had never even been mentioned by the school to her during the course of their “investigation,” nor was she interviewed by the school at any point during her suspension…in fact, they didn’t even return her calls.

“The overall conclusion by the AVP of Human Resources was: Other than a letter of reprimand, which will be placed in my file, the school determined that “formal disciplinary action is not appropriate in this manner.”

“Erased”

Suspending Lombardo is, according to students and faculty, not an isolated misstep by the school, but rather part of a pattern of responding to concerns with obfuscation and delay, a pattern highlighted by the recent creation of a non-sanctioned website for students. 

The racist text thread, originally sent via encrypted messaging app from one student to another, was posted to www.CSUMStudentVoice.org, a website created by senior cadet Sophie Scopazzi, and was only the latest in a series of scandals documented on the site by students both documenting abuse from fellow cadets and also frustrated with the school’s lackluster responses. 

Scopazzi, whose own battles with the school over uniform and grooming standards prompted the creation of the website, has blasted Lombardo’s suspension as “retaliatory” and the school’s responses in general as “sluggish” and lacking concern.

“It is entirely unjust,” said Scopazzi. “It’s retaliation, for what she said, for daring to speak out on behalf of students.”

Scopazzi, who is trans, said Lombardo approached her to learn about the best ways to talk to her, and tried to understand her experiences. 

“She is the only person in the leadership that had the courage to admit she didn’t know anything about the transfeminine experience, and reached out to me personally to get to know what I was thinking in the world. ‘How should I talk to you? How can I include you better?’”

Scopazzi also suggested that the school’s response to Lombardo appeared to try to “erase” her from the school.

“It’s beyond absurd that they removed the one leader who speaks out in an adequate way. It’s also absurd that they immediately removed her from the website, from her position and the work she was doing to help and protect students. They tried to erase her from the institution,” she said. “Almost immediately they removed her from the website. They never update the website for anything else,” she said, adding that staff members who left the academy would remain on the website for weeks after their departure.

“…The change has to come from the top. We need senior leadership who don’t make decisions based on their sexist homophobic gender-binary mindset,” Scopazzi added in an email. “Until that happens, I don’t believe we will get long-lasting meaningful change.”

“I would like to say I’m relieved with the conclusion of my suspension, but the Cadets are still suffering,” added Lombardo in an e-mail. “Two Cadets recently had tires to their cars/motorcycle slashed, with homophobic slurs carved into them. Things got progressively worse after I was suspended. I’m just thankful that the Cadets are on holiday break until 10 January.”

She said the effects of the scandal had driven a wedge between some cadets and the school, and that she expected students to leave the school as a result.

“Enrollment was already low for Fall 2021 and even lower for Spring 2022.  I’m sure those numbers will continue to drop once the semester actually starts. Parents, friends, family, alumni, maritime organizations…know what’s happening on campus because the cadets have made it very public knowledge. Cal Maritime needs to make some drastic changes if they want to save their reputation…I also feel bad for the dedicated staff, like myself, who work way over 40 hours a week, on weekends, care so much for the cadets, but are walked on by leadership.

“I truly think Cal Maritime has the potential to be an awesome place, but action needs to happen,” she said.

Related: Pressure From ‘Student Voice’ Website Not Enough to Budge Cal Maritime

David S. Lewis is a USCG-licensed master mariner and veteran reporter. He runs a maritime consulting and charter business in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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