- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2003

Officials at the National Fire Academy said yesterday they have fired an instructor who uttered a racial slur to a black D.C. fire captain during a training session for fire-fighting officers.

D.C. Fire Capt. Clifton Humphries said instructor John R. Popenfus referred to him using the “n-word” and displayed a racially insensitive cartoon and an application for the Ku Klux Klan in front of a class of fire officers at the academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

Tom Olshanski, a spokesman for the academy, confirmed an incident took place in which an instructor used “offensive and unacceptable language” during the course.

He said two security guards accompanied the instructor to his office to get his belongings packed, then escorted him out the door.

“As soon as one of our students felt uncomfortable, this guy was gone,” Mr. Olshanski said.

He also confirmed the presence of offensive documents, but did not know the nature of them.

The academy, the self-described “Top Gun” school of fire administration, is part of the U.S. Fire Administration under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Capt. Humphries, 34, a training instructor and a 16-year veteran of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, attended the 12-day class on developing training courses for firefighters. He was joined by 20 other fire officers from around the country, most of whom had at least a dozen years in service.

Capt. Humphries, the only black officer in the class, said that before class July 30, Mr. Popenfus called him outside the classroom and showed him three racially offensive handouts, including an application for the Ku Klux Klan.

He said Mr. Popenfus wanted him to participate in a skit, but he was shocked when he saw the materials, so he walked away from Mr. Popenfus and back into the classroom.

“He wanted this to be like a skit,” Capt. Humphries said. “He wanted me to respond to this in a negative way.”

Back in the classroom, Mr. Popenfus proceeded with a standard lecture until two other instructors left the classroom, then displayed the offensive items in front of the class.

“What do you think about that, [expletive]?” Capt. Humphries recalled Mr. Popenfus saying.

Capt. Humphries said Mr. Popenfus approached him from behind and said into his ear, “Call me ‘boy.’ It’s OK.” Three times he told Mr. Popenfus he felt uncomfortable, but Mr. Popenfus persisted, Capt. Humphries said.

Capt. Humphries said by that time, several in the class had folded their laptop computers and walked out.

“I saw everyone looking back, like, ‘What’s going on?’” Capt. Humphries said. “I didn’t know whether to sit there, to run, to jump.” He said he felt “violated” and “degraded” by the remarks.

At least one student told Mr. Popenfus he acted inappropriately, and another student sought out the school’s deputy superintendent to tell him what took place, according to Capt. Humphries and academy officials.

Mr. Popenfus denied knowledge of the incident when reached by telephone yesterday at his home in Frederick, Md.

“It’s nothing I know about, sorry,” he said, and hung up the phone.

According to the academy’s investigation, Mr. Popenfus was escorted off campus about 90 minutes after making the remarks.

Mr. Olshanski said Mr. Popenfus had worked as a contract instructor at the academy for more than 20 years and that officials are aware of no other racial incident in which he was involved.

Mr. Popenfus was next scheduled to teach a course in December.

Mr. Olshanski said “that won’t happen.”

He also said the course was a “prescriptive course,” meaning instructors must closely follow the curriculum, with no room for skits such as the one Mr. Popenfus initiated.

“There isn’t that kind of latitude,” Mr. Olshanski said.

He said the academy teaches 200,000 students a year, counting return visitors, and is in the midst of a three-year effort to recruit more minority students. Mr. Olshanski also said the academy has a “human-dignity policy,” of which instructors must be aware before signing contracts to teach.

Capt. Humphries said he has attended seven classes at the academy and always noticed a lack of minority students and instructors.

He said the incident has made him question whether the instructor’s remarks are part of a pattern of discrimination that could stretch to admissions and hiring practices.

“Instances like this are going to prevent people from going there,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words to me. They say they have a human-dignity policy, but actions speak louder than words.”

Mr. Olshanski said that in years past the academy may have been a mirror of the fire service, meaning predominantly white, but now the majority of minorities and women applying for courses are accepted.

“We have a very diverse campus,” he said. “There is no undertone here.”

Capt. Humphries said he doubts he will return to the academy until officials make a commitment to racial sensitivity, and that he has lost his motivation to finish a six-month project needed to complete the course.

“Right now, I don’t really care to send it back,” he said. “I love [the academy], but I can’t go back. Not now.”

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