Saturday, January 7, 2006

The U.S. Naval Academy has ordered a court-martial for a faculty member who made a “crude” remark in the presence of female midshipmen, even though an investigating officer recommended only administrative action.

The three criminal charges against Lt. Bryan D. Black come as the Annapolis school’s superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, has announced a “zero-tolerance” campaign to rid the campus of sexual harassment.

Lt. Black says he is being unfairly prosecuted as a “poster child” for Adm. Rempt’s campaign. The academy filed criminal charges days after the school’s board of visitors criticized Adm. Rempt after a Defense Department sexual harassment task force scolded the school.

Adm. Rempt’s anti-sexual-harassment policy includes urging midshipmen and staff to view for the third year straight a play called “Sex Signals.” The language is so graphic that Adm. Rempt recommends that children should not attend any performance of the three-day run on campus, starting Monday.

“The two-person show explores how mixed messages, gender role stereotypes and unrealistic fantasies contribute to misunderstandings between the sexes,” Adm. Rempt said in a message to staff.

An academy spokeswoman declined to comment on Adm. Rempt’s decision to court-martial the officer.

Lt. Black, who has been removed as an oceanography teacher at Annapolis, has filed an appeal of Adm. Rempt’s decision with Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter. “I do not believe my case has been handled fairly on its merits or on the facts,” Lt. Black said. “Rather, I believe I am the ‘poster child’ being held out as an example following the critical evaluation of the academy and by direct extension, its leadership and superintendent personally.”

The incident occurred last August during an oceanographic cruise in the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Black served as safety officer on what is called a yard patrol craft.

The charging document states that Lt. Black made “a crude remark” in the presence of a female midshipman, Samantha Foxton, about how a battleship sexually arouses him. He suggested how it might arouse her. The remarks created “an intimidating, hostile and offensive working environment.”

The three criminal charges are failure to obey a lawful general order or regulation; conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen; and indecent language.

Charles Gittins, Lt. Black’s civilian attorney, said Lt. Black was not making sexual advances, but making the kind of remark that is common among sailors. Lt. Black apologized when he realized it offended Midshipmen Foxton, and he thought the issue closed.

“This arises because of criticism of the Naval Academy,” Mr. Gittins said. “In a knee-jerk, politically correct reaction, the academy decided to make an example of Lt. Black when in fact it had been completely resolved informally long before. He acknowledged he used rough language and he apologized and believed the matter was closed.”

A female lieutenant commander onboard did not think the apology was “sincere enough” and conducted her own investigation. She interviewed all the female midshipmen on the ship and filed a report with the superintendent’s office, Mr. Gittins said.

Marine Corps Maj. C.J. Thielemann, who conducted the preliminary investigation, stated in his report that “Lt. Black’s actions do not warrant criminal processing.” He recommended counseling and a non-punitive letter of caution.

In response to questions from The Washington Times, the academy administration released a statement that did not address why Adm. Rempt overrode the investigative officer.

“The Navy does not tolerate sexual harassment …,” the statement said in part. “All allegations are thoroughly investigated, people are held accountable for their actions and due process is ensured.”

Adm. Rempt ordered a special court-martial, scheduled to begin Jan. 30. The maximum penalties if Lt. Black is convicted are a letter of reprimand and forfeiture of 2/3 pay per month for one year.

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