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Bill would bring Merchant Marine Academy under Title IX

Cadets at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings

Cadets at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, march in formation during a New York Fleet Week welcoming ceremony for the Navy ship U.S.S. Zephyr on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

New legislation aims to subject the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point to the gender discrimination laws in place at most colleges and universities, following yearslong concerns about the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.

The Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act, introduced last Thursday by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), wouldrequire the 74-year-old federal service academy to follow Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The nation’s five service academies are exempt from the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination, including sexual violence, in schools that receive federal funding. However the Merchant Marine Academy, alone among the five academies, does not conform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a set of federal rules defining the military’s justice system and criminal offenses under military law. Advocates say this arrangement hampers reform efforts and enforcement.

Gillibrand noted that while she supports steps taken by the academy’s superintendent, Rear Admiral James Helis, to fix the school’s culture, there’s no guarantee they will be followed by future leaders of the academy. Suozzi said the bill was important in that it would allow all students to feel safe.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the Congressional oversight panel for the academy, said while he supports the bill, he had concerns about the “unintended consequences” of placing the school under Title IX and noted that the four other service academies are not.

The bill would also create a 24-hour helpline; fund satellite phones for students to report crimes overseas; allow academy officials to conduct unannounced “spot checks” on ships; require industry and union officials to maintain records of sexual assault training for crew members; and designate of a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator on campus.

Anthony Zenkus, director of education at The Safe Center, a victims services agency in Bethpage that is training midshipmen this month on sexual assault prevention, said “right now, the school falls into that ‘no person’s land’ of it’s not under the military, and it doesn’t fall under Title IX. Therefore, students don’t have the level of protection that students at every other school in New York have, or every other school in the country.”

Newsday reported in January that sexual assaults, harassment and sexism have persisted at the academy for nearly a decade, both on campus and during its required year-at-sea program, according to federal documents and interviews with midshipman.

Academy officials said they received a record nine sexual assault reports in the 2016-17 school year, a sign that more people are aware of the campus’ services.

The school last month suspended the men’s Division III soccer program and placed seven senior players on “deferred graduate status.” The Transportation Department’s Inspector General’s Office in February launched an investigation into sexual misconduct into team players, and the students are suing in federal court for their right to graduate.

A judge ruled that the students could walk in the June 17 ceremony, but their graduation materials were withheld by the federal government. The court case resumes 10:30 a.m. Thursday at federal court in Central Islip.

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