Lawyers for five U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer players who are under federal investigation appeared in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, seeking to reverse the school’s decision barring the students from graduating with their class on Saturday.
In a brief hearing before Judge Leonard Wexler in Central Islip, the attorney for four of the students argued the Kings Point academy is withholding their degrees without formal charges or due process spelled out in the school’s regulations. Both sides are expected back in federal court at 3 p.m. Thursday.
The judge declined to hear the case of a fifth student who filed a separate suit, which was assigned to a different judge.
Wexler suggested that the academy allow the four students to graduate and receive their diplomas under a “conditional graduation.”
“There’s probably no law under what I’ve just done,” he said. “But I think it’s a practical approach.”
The students are among a group of upperclassmen soccer players under investigation by the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the federal agency that oversees the academy. The investigation centers on an alleged incident directed at a freshman player that occurred in September on a team bus, according to court documents.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Knapp, representing the federal service academy, said in court that the inspector general’s investigation involves “alleged assault.”
Because the probe is continuing, federal officials have not provided details on the incident or incidents. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of USMMA’s Board of Visitors, told Newsday this week the investigation stemmed from an incident that was “something of a sexual nature.”
Last week, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, suspended the men’s Division III soccer program pending the outcome of the investigation.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Michael Cassell, the Jericho lawyer for the four plaintiffs, said the students should receive a “notice of charges” and an administrative hearing.
“They’re just being placed in limbo,” he said.
Wexler made the suggestion on “conditional graduation” and asked Cassell, in reference to the students, “How about if they’re wrong?”
The judge said the approach should satisfy both sides. “He’ll get his due process and you’ll get your diploma back if you’re right,” Wexler said, referring first to the students’ lawyer’s stance and secondly to Knapp’s position for the academy.
Knapp said he wanted time to review the plaintiffs’ motion and expressed concern about Wexler’s suggestion, saying after students graduate “they’re no longer under the thumb of the academy.”
A spokeswoman with the Maritime Administration, the Transportation Department agency that operates the academy, declined to comment Wednesday. The academy’s commencement is being held Saturday morning on the Kings Point campus.
The 74-year-old service academy has been under scrutiny 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 two lawsuits were filed this week. In both, the students say that Helis notified them on June 2 of the deferred graduation and that the academy denied their requests for reconsideration.
Helis, in a June 2 letter to one of the students that was included in court papers, wrote that the OIG “has informed me that you are the subject of an ongoing investigation into alleged assaults committed by Academy Midshipmen. As the outcome of this investigation may lead to criminal charges and/or administrative disciplinary charges against you, you are being placed on Deferred Graduate status, effective immediately.”
Cassell, in a legal memo on behalf of his four clients, said: “Significantly, here, the Academy placed Plaintiffs on deferred graduate status — effectively suspending Plaintiffs from the Academy — without any due process or any hearing.”
One of the lawsuits mentions an incident as occurring on a team bus returning from a match against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. According to an NCAA schedule, the two teams played in New London, Connecticut, on Sept. 10.
The four seniors’ complaint said the investigation was initiated by a freshman on the team. The team was traveling on a bus to a hotel, the complaint says, and “consistent with school tradition” the upperclassmen “teased” the freshman members of the team.
The freshman threw a banana at an upperclassman on the bus, the complaint says, and some upperclassmen “apparently” threw water on the freshman. It alleges that the freshman said “he was dosed [sic] with urine.”
The four seniors say that none of them participated in conduct directed at the freshman or “any conduct that could be considered harassment.” The fifth senior, the only plaintiff in the second lawsuit, says he was not on the trip.
The school also is on warning 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.