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Congress members express support for USMMA, Sea Year

The entrance to the United States Merchant Marine

The entrance to the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point is seen on May 13, 2013. Credit: Steven Pfost

Thirteen members of Congress, including three from Long Island, have joined in support of reinstating the Sea Year program at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy while also asking for school and federal agencies to address sexual harassment and other concerns that have put the Kings Point school in the spotlight.

The elected officials, in the letter to the service academy’s overseers, including U.S. Transportation Department Secretary Anthony Foxx, requested specifics on what is being done to meet requirements to keep the school’s accreditation and what measures have been taken to protect all students.

The Merchant Marine Academy was placed on warning in June by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its accrediting agency, which said it did not comply with requirements to meet five of 14 benchmarks, including governance, institutional assessments and financial planning.

The school remains accredited while on warning, which is the lowest of the commission’s noncompliance actions, and has up to two years to work to reverse the ruling.

The letter, dated Sept. 2, was signed by Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), along with 10 others, and advocated for the school to continue graduating licensed Merchant Marine officers that go on from Long Island to work with military and commercial fleets all over the world.

“We write to express our strong support for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and the reinstatement of the Sea Year program with meaningful protective measures ensuring the security of all midshipmen,” the letter states. “We strongly believe that one report of sexual harassment is too many and that meaningful action must be taken to safeguard midshipmen against all forms of sexual harassment.”

The Sea Year program is a key element of the academy’s appeal because of the “real-world” experience it provides. Students serve on vessels — some federally owned, some commercial — for about 300 days and often are out of communication with the academy, friends and family.

Academy and U.S. officials halted the program in June but partially reinstated it in July, allowing midshipmen to serve on federal ships but not commercial vessels.

The letter to Foxx, U.S. Maritime Administration Administrator Paul Jaenichen and Adm. Jim Helis, the academy’s superintendent, gave them five business days to address 14 sets of questions on issues ranging from meeting accreditation standards to explaining the decision process that initially caused suspension of Sea Year to detailing how students will meet graduation requirements. The letter also asks if there are any plans to close the academy.

Academy officials did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment. A Maritime Administration spokeswoman said Tuesday that “we have received the letter and are in the process of responding to the questions.”

King, in an interview, said the missive is a call to action. He and other members of Congress want to make sure that the Transportation Department, the Maritime Administration and the academy take ownership of the issues because many students are concerned about graduation and others are seeking to apply as new students.

“We do want the program reinstated, but there have to be reforms before they are reinstated,” King said. “The issues they [students who allege harassment] raise are significant . . . and at the same time, we don’t want this caught in a bureaucratic struggle” that takes long to resolve.

King said that, as chair of the Kings Point academy’s Board of Visitors, he is presiding over an October hearing where he hopes specifics will be discussed. He said he fears the school may lose appeal for applicants and that others waiting to become licensed officers could become discouraged.

“You have midshipmen’s education being upended,” King said. “It’s at the same time important to put in place real safeguards, but all we are saying is ‘Get it done.’ ”

Rice voiced similar concerns in a statement issued Tuesday, saying the questions posed in the letter need to be answered “as soon as possible.”

“We want to know what is being done to protect midshipmen from sexual assault and harassment and to make sure that the academy meets the necessary requirements to maintain accreditation in the future,” her statement said.

Zeldin, in a statement, said the Sea Year program should be reinstituted while the allegations are addressed.

“My office is taking these allegations very seriously, and any and all allegations of sexual assault, bullying and harassment must be immediately investigated,” he said.

In a statement issued last month, the Transportation Department said it was working to achieve those goals.

“Over the next few months, we will have independent outside experts experienced in assessing institutional and organizational culture examine all such aspects within the USMMA, both on campus and at sea, in an attempt to identify root causes and their impacts to the academy culture and offer possible short-term and long-term corrective actions to address the issues,” that statement read. “This assessment will delay the resumption of Sea Year on commercial vessels for a number of months.”


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