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USMMA soccer players sexually abused, bullied freshman, lawyer says

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Photo Credit: Steven Pfost

Seven former members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy men’s soccer team committed sexually abusive acts against a freshman player in September and bullied him for at least a month afterward, a government lawyer said Friday in federal court in Central Islip.

The students — all seniors who were not allowed to graduate in June — must appear in separate administrative hearings before the Kings Point school’s executive board to answer allegations of sexual misconduct, coercion and hazing, Assistant U.S. Attorney James H. Knapp said at the status conference.

Lawyers for the students, who have denied all the allegations, repeatedly objected to the academy’s disciplinary charges being read in court. U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler denied their objections.

Knapp said “physical abuse” and “unreasonable verbal taunting” occurred on Sept. 2 and Sept. 10 on team bus trips to games at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, respectively.

They also “hazed by humiliation and physical act by squirting water and/or urine and by covering with food several individuals” on the bus, he said.

The seven students filed the federal lawsuit against USMMA early last month after being told they were barred from graduating, saying they had not been told of the allegations against them and had been denied due process.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, had placed the seniors on deferred graduate status and also had suspended the entire men’s NCAA Division III soccer team because of a separate federal investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by team members.

Friday was the deadline that Wexler set for the academy’s lawyers to present the disciplinary charges or provide a reason to further deny the students’ graduation credentials. Otherwise, the judge had said, he would grant the students’ motion that they be awarded their diplomas, Coast Guard licenses and other commissioning documents.

Wexler said he was keeping jurisdiction of the case and will wait to hear from the lawyers if the students are not being given due process.

He also expressed annoyance with both the academy and four of the student plaintiffs who Knapp said had sought duplicate licenses from the Coast Guard Academy, violating the judge’s earlier order that those documents be withheld.

“What’s disturbing to me is I had no idea what the charges were. I finally put in an order that if I don’t know by today, I’m going to dismiss all charges,” Wexler said, noting that Knapp said he first learned of the charges at 12:30 a.m. Friday “and the court found out this morning. Shocking.”

Shaun Hogan, the Jericho-based attorney representing five of the students, said in an interview that the allegations “were long on salacious claims and short on detail and what each midshipman had done. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has known about this claim for 10 months and it’s only after we went to federal court did they reveal the charges.”

Both Hogan and Manhattan-based lawyer Ron Meister, representing one of the other students, said their clients are unable to get jobs.

“Unfortunately, while the government made the charges public, the [academy’s] hearings will be in private, so all of the facts might not come to the attention of the public,” Meister said in an interview.

The former students are part of the federal probe by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General. USMMA falls under the department’s jurisdiction. A spokesman for the inspector general’s office declined to comment Friday.

The plaintiffs joined in one case are Connor Culiver of Scottsdale, Arizona; David Burkhardt of Cutchogue; Michael Heckmuller of Cypress, California; Gavin Yingling of Salisbury, Maryland; Cory Maier of Hampton, Virginia; and Brennan Becker of Weston, Florida. The complaint of Timothy Hughes of upstate Ballston Lake is separate.

USMMA, a 74-year-old federal service academy, educates men and women for careers in the commercial shipping industry and to serve the nation’s transportation defense needs. Graduates receive bachelor’s degrees, a U.S. Coast Guard license and an officer’s commission in any branch of the armed services. The student enrollment is about 920.

Applicants must be nominated by a member of Congress and meet the physical, security, suitability and character requirements necessary for commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Upholding the academy’s honor code is among the school’s graduation requirements.

Over the last year, the academy has dealt with criticism over its handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases. Better prevention training and reporting procedures have been implemented after government surveys showed midshipmen were reluctant to report misconduct for fear of retaliation.

In a previous court appearance on July 6, Wexler had told prosecutors they had 10 days to file the academy’s disciplinary charges against the students. The academy’s lawyers asked the court for an extension so investigators could complete interviews of students who were returning to campus for the start of the school year.

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