Prison guard trainees were photographed giving a Nazi salute. The entire class was fired.

Thirty-seven West Virginia Corrections and Rehabilitation employees gave an apparent Nazi salute during their class graduation picture. –Photo by HO/W.Va. Division of Corrections an / AFP via Getty Images

Most graduation photos capture candidates on the cusp of a promising future, but for one class of cadets at West Virginia’s state corrections academy captured performing a Nazi salute, their final class picture marks the end of their careers.

Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, announced Monday that he had approved the recommendation of his cabinet secretary overseeing the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety that the cadets pictured in the photo be fired. One additional staff member at the corrections academy was also recommend for firing, joining two other staffers who were fired on Dec. 6, a day after the photo of the training class publicly emerged. Four other academy staffers will be suspended without pay.

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“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said in a statement announcing his acceptance of DMAPS Secretary Jeff Sandy’s recommendations. “I also said that this act needed to result in real consequences — terminations and dismissals. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which advocates for Muslim civil rights, praised Justice’s decision.

“We welcome the firing of these individuals and hope it sends the strong message that anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry and hate will not be tolerated in West Virginia or any other state,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement Monday.

Justice’s announcement marks the end of a nearly month-long investigation into the circumstances around the photo, which had angered state officials as an embarrassing and insensitive incident that undermined the credibility of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which is overseen by DMAPS.

Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts, identified in a report released Monday by her rank and last name, presciently said upon seeing the photo, “Well, that is going to bite us in the [expletive].”

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Daniels-Watts told investigators that she found the photo “horrible” and that it called to mind incidents of college students making the gesture in viral photos that were later criticized as anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, she did not remove the photo, which by then had been printed into copies to be stuffed into graduation packets, the report said. Daniels-Watts would later tell department officials at a meeting about the picture, “Do I resign now or what?” and admitted “I saw the picture and did nothing.”

The report found that the Nazi salute originated with a cadet who encouraged classmates to use it “as a sign of respect for Byrd,” a reference to instructor Karrie Byrd. Several other cadets reportedly objected to making a Nazi salute and called it out as inappropriate, only for the instigating cadet to tell them, “look at me, I am black and I am doing it,” the report said.

Two other instructors who saw the class make the gesture reportedly reprimanded the cadets, believing that ended the issue. The report states that separately, Byrd told the class “she saw nothing wrong with the gesture and allowed it to continue.”

When it came time for the graduation photo, several cadets declined to make the gesture, prompting re-takes of the photo until everyone participated in the salute. The report said of the 10 cadets who were uncomfortable, three relented and the rest raised clenched fists instead; the cadets told DMAPS investigators they acquiesced to Byrd out of fear that they wouldn’t graduate for disobeying an instructor.

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Justice’s announcement did not specify the total number of cadets who were terminated and did not identify any of the fired or suspended employees by name. In the explanation for the recommendation to terminate all the cadets, even though some initially showed hesitation, Sandy wrote their conduct had nonetheless undermined the department’s values and damaged the reputation, perception and morale of employees.

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