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Experts to look into culture at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, officials say

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on May 13, 2013. A team of "independent outside experts" will examine the academy's culture after reports of sexual harassment and assault at the institute and while students are at sea, federal officials said. Credit: Steven Pfost

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it will convene a team of “independent outside experts” to examine the culture at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, after reports of sexual harassment and assault at the academy and while students are at sea.

“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,” the Department of Transportation said in a statement posted on the academy’s website Monday.

The panel will “identify root causes and their impacts to the academy culture, and offer possible short-term and long-term corrective actions to address the issues,” the statement said.

The move comes more than a month after the Kings Point academy, which operates under the Maritime Administration of the Department of Transportation, was issued a warning by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that its academic accreditation was in peril.

The commission pointed to concerns about sexual harassment and assault during the academy’s Sea Year — a program in which sophomore and junior students, also called midshipmen, are assigned to sail on merchant ships. The academy has up to two years to work to reverse the ruling.

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

The Department of Transportation said the suspension of Sea Year came in response to “reported incidents of bullying, coercion, sexual harassment and assault involving midshipmen during their time at sea.”

Federal officials and the academy “have made consistent efforts to address these issues over the last few years, but we have not solved the problem with inappropriate behavior during Sea Year, and behavior issues that are affecting the campus culture,” Monday’s statement said.

The outside examination will “delay the resumption of Sea Year on commercial vessels for a number of months,” the statement said. Instead, midshipmen would be assigned to federal vessels and, as of Monday, to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force vessels, according to the department.

A Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Thursday the agency was early in the contracting process for the outside examination, so “the cost and funding source have yet to be finalized.”

Officials at the academy — which has about 900 students and is one of five U.S. service academies — did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In a statement, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who serves on the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional panel that makes recommendations on institute operations, said: “The problems that led to the academy and Maritime Administration’s decision to temporarily suspend the Sea Year are indicative of leadership problems at the academy that must be addressed.”

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), another Board of Visitors member, issued a statement in support of the decision to bring in “outside experts to review the culture.”

“But it can’t be window dressing,” Israel said. “The academy must have zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment issues, both on its grounds and while midshipmen are at sea.”

Although the academy has taken “reasonable and customary methods” to tackle the problem, both sexual harassment and sexual assault “is still occurring at the academy; this continued trend is alarming,” according to the 2016 annual report to the Secretary of Transportation, prepared by the academy’s advisory board.

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