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Federal judge gives USMMA more time in lawsuit filed by students

The entrance of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The entrance of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

A federal judge is giving the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy an extra week to submit any disciplinary charges against seven students — all former members of the men’s soccer team — who are under federal investigation and have not been allowed to graduate.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, superintendent of the Kings Point service academy, placed the students on “deferred graduate status” in June, citing a sexual misconduct investigation conducted by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General into members of the soccer team.

The seven seniors sued, saying they had not been informed of the charges against them and seeking reinstatement in order to graduate.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler, in a July 6 ruling, gave prosecutors until Monday to file the academy’s disciplinary charges against the students. If that was not done, the judge said, he would grant the students’ motion.

Government lawyers said in court papers this week that school investigators needed more time to finish interviewing current students, many of whom are out-of-state or have been “scattered across the globe” since the school year ended last month. The new term begins Wednesday, and students must report to campus by 6 p.m. Sunday.

After the school year begins on Wednesday, “the Academy’s investigators will readily be able to complete the student interviews and conclude the administrative inquiry,” the government’s letter said.

The inspector general’s investigation, which began in February, stemmed from an alleged incident on a team bus in September.

Ronald Meister, an attorney writing on behalf of the seven students, argued against the government’s request, saying it “further extends the time during which plaintiffs’ lives and careers are on hold, now 10 months after the events in question, and already a month after their anticipated graduation — during which entire time no charges have been made against them.”

The students were allowed, under a Wexler directive, to walk with their classmates at USMMA’s June 17 commencement, but have not received their diplomas, Coast Guard licenses or others materials.

Wexler’s latest order, issued Wednesday, gives the academy until July 21 to pursue charges under the school’s disciplinary system. The next court date was scheduled for July 24.

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