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Two more USMMA students challenge graduation ban

A ship's propeller outside the American Merchant Marine

A ship's propeller outside the American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Aug. 31, 2016. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Two more U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer players joined the federal lawsuit seeking to graduate with their class Saturday in ceremonies at the Kings Point campus, according to court papers filed Friday in Central Islip.

Cory Maier of Hampton, Virginia, and Timothy Hughes of Ballston Lake, New York, brought to seven the number of plaintiffs challenging the service academy’s decision to bar them from graduation because they are under federal investigation into alleged sexual misconduct.

All seven seniors are members of the men’s soccer program, which was suspended last week on the order of the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis.

The academy says the soccer players may have violated the school’s honor code and therefore would not meet requirements to graduate. The students say they did not participate “in any conduct that could be considered harassment” and were not granted a proper hearing or due process before Helis deferred their graduation.

The alleged misconduct, according to officials and court documents, focuses on an incident involving 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.

Maier was added to U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler’s order, issued Thursday, that says five students will be able to participate in the commencement ceremony, 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.

It was unclear on Friday whether that order also applied to Hughes, whose lawyer filed a separate but identical complaint.

“This matter is substantially the same as an ongoing civil matter currently being adjudicated by Judge Leonard Wexler of this Court in which classmates and teammates have been granted partial relief, in that they have received a court order requiring that they be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies but that their degrees be temporarily withheld pending future litigation,” said a separate complaint brought by Erick Kraemer, a Buffalo-based attorney representing Hughes.

Kraemer did not respond to a phone call or email Friday.

The parties — the student plaintiffs, their lawyers and U.S. Justice Department attorneys representing the academy, its superintendent and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the school — are scheduled to be back in court on July 6.

The five other students 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’s court filing says he was not on the team’s trip. His suit was joined with that of the other, initial four plaintiffs.

Students at USMMA, which has an enrollment of about 900, graduate with a bachelor of science degree, a U.S. Coast Guard license and the ability to become commissioned officers in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Helis notified the students on June 2 of their “deferred graduate” status. The students are under investigation by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General.

With Robert E. Kessler


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