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Report: USMMA students say they were sexually harassed

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. Photo Credit: Steven Pfost

WASHINGTON — Nearly two-thirds of women and one-tenth of men enrolled at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point said they had experienced sexual harassment on campus and during sea training during the 2014-15 school year, according to a report released Wednesday.

That reported misconduct has put the service academy’s accreditation in jeopardy and led its officials in June to abruptly suspend its Sea Year, forcing a scramble to place 216 members of the classes of 2018 and 2019 on vessels to fulfill the time at sea required for graduation.

Members of Congress who attended a meeting of the academy’s advisory board Wednesday on Capitol Hill expressed surprise at the extent of sexual harassment found by the anonymous survey of midshipmen that used questionnaires and follow-up focus groups.

“I was really shocked by it. You just can’t let that go on,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who called the academy an important and effective institution.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said, “This has to stop. The percentages that you gave are astounding. The examples that are in your report are at best offensive and not tolerable.”

The survey, taken during the 2014-15 school year, found that 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment, according to a preliminary report to Congress, advisory board chairwoman Sharon van Wyck said. About 900 midshipmen are enrolled, with women typically less than one-fifth of them.

While the harassment occurs both on campus and at sea, she said, it is more of a problem during Sea Year, when midshipmen are required to serve on vessels for around 300 days and often are out of communication with the academy, friends and family.

Midshipmen who had been at sea told the board in separate interviews of being stalked; of being required to sit on someone’s lap to receive their evaluation; of being told to negotiate with prostitutes for shipmates; and being expected to engage in unwanted sexual activities, she said.

Few report the abuse — there was only one report in 2014-15 — “because they strongly believed that their future career opportunity would be jeopardized if they did so,” van Wyck said. “The midshipmen reported that they feel resigned to experiencing psychological physical violence because they believe that abuse is part of the maritime culture.”

The simmering issue of sexual harassment emerged in June when the Middle States Commission on Higher Education warned the academy its accreditation was in jeopardy, in part because it lagged on assuring safety of students.

Congress has been prodding the academy to address the issue for several years, and the Senate this week passed specific requirements for the academy to deal with sexual harassment.

Shortly after the accreditation warning, the academy put its Sea Year on “stand down,” and nearly two weeks later met with commercial shipping companies and labor unions to put measures in place to prevent sexual misconduct.

Paul Jaenichen, administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration, said the academy would maintain its accreditation by meeting Middle States’ requirements within the allotted two years for improvement.

Parents and alumni also worry that current midshipmen, particularly in the classes of 2018 and 2019, might not be able to graduate because they lack the necessary time at sea, King said.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, said for now midshipmen are being placed on vessels operated by New York’s and California’s state-run training programs.

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