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5 USMMA students will not get diplomas at graduation, judge rules

Midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in

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

Five students suing the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy seeking reinstatement of their right to graduate will not receive their diplomas or other certificates at Saturday’s commencement on the Kings Point campus, but will be allowed to walk with their classmates in the ceremony, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The students — senior members of the men’s soccer team — are subjects in a federal investigation of an alleged assault of a freshman player in the back of a team bus on Sept. 10, the day of a game against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, according to officials and court filings.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler issued the ruling after about an hour of private conferences between the lawyers for both sides and with their clients in the Central Islip courtroom.

The students will be able to participate in the ceremony, the judge said, but their degrees, licenses with the U.S. Coast Guard, commissioning documents and other graduation materials will be “withheld and maintained” by the Merchant Marine Academy, the Coast Guard, and/or the Defense Department.

Both sides are scheduled to be back in court on July 6.

The students’ highly unusual challenge was underscored in a five-page submission to the court from the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, who said he knew of no other time any midshipman had legally challenged a deferred graduation. Helis notified the students on June 2 that their graduation had been deferred because of the investigation by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Transportation Department, the federal agency that oversees the academy.

In his declaration, Helis disclosed that the inspector general’s investigation began on Feb. 14 and concerned “sexual misconduct by members of the Academy’s Men’s soccer team that allegedly occurred during travel to an away game in September 2016.” The academy also had learned of the alleged incident by then, he wrote.

Last week, Helis suspended the men’s Division III soccer program pending the outcome of the investigation.

The 74-year-old federal service academy has about 900 male and female students who serve the nation’s marine transportation and defense needs during peacetime and war. Graduates receive a bachelor of science degree, a U.S. Coast Guard license and the ability to receive an officer’s commission in the U.S. Armed Forces Reserve.

Four of the students, one of whom was attired in his white academy uniform, attended the hearing with their families. They declined to comment after leaving the courthouse.

In a motion filed earlier Thursday, attorneys for the academy asked Wexler to dismiss the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney James H. Knapp, representing the academy, said the five students may have violated the school’s honor code and therefore would not meet the requirements to graduate.

“Because the OIG is investigating Plaintiffs for ‘alleged assaults,’ they may have committed behavior and/or honor violations under the regulations,” Knapp wrote. “As a result, Plaintiffs are not in compliance the Academy’s graduation requirements pending the outcome of the OIG investigation.”

The courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of institutions of higher education to withhold degrees from students who are in the midst of investigations or disciplinary proceedings, Knapp wrote. He cited a 2012 ruling in favor of New York University’s decision to withhold a master’s in business administration degree of a student who had been convicted of violating federal securities laws.

Lawyers for the USMMA students have argued that the academy denied them due process before barring them from graduating with their class.

The five plaintiffs are Connor Culiver of Scottsdale, Arizona; David Burkhardt of Cutchogue; Michael Heckmuller of Cypress, California; Gavin Yingling of Salisbury, Maryland; and Brennan Becker of Weston, Florida. Becker, whose court filing says he was not on the team’s trip, is represented by Manhattan lawyer Ronald Meister, and his suit was joined with that of the other four plaintiffs.

Four of the students, excluding Becker, say that on a team bus headed to a hotel, upperclassmen “teased” the freshman members, which was “consistent with school tradition.” Their lawsuit says the freshman believed he was “dosed [sic] with urine” on the team bus. They say upperclassmen “apparently” threw water on the freshman.

Shaun Hogan, a Jericho attorney representing the other four students, said the midshipmen have been “in limbo.”

“We’re pretty comfortable in saying our clients weren’t involved in anything of a sexual nature,” Hogan said after the hearing. “They’re all on the same soccer team, they took care of the first-year kids, they’re a very close-knit organization, and they cannot even foresee anything like that being done by one of their teammates.”

The situation also potentially affects the students’ professional futures, Hogan said. Burkhardt is to attend the U.S. Marine Corps, pursuing flight school, and Heckmuller is scheduled to start work on Sunday with a job in the shipping industry, he said.

“The more time that goes by, the more damage it does to them,” Hogan said. “If someone will hire them under these circumstances, which is a big ‘if.’ ”

The academy has been under examination for its handling of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases and for a campus culture in which retaliation and coercion have been documented problems.

The school also was placed on warning in June 2016 by its academic accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, for failing to comply with five of 14 quality standards. The Philadelphia-based commission is scheduled to meet June 22 and is expected to consider whether the academy will return to good standing. The school remains accredited while on warning.

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