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Congress passes bill that bolsters sexual-assault protection at USMMA

Exterior of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is

Exterior of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is seen on Jan. 9, 2011. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Both houses of Congress have passed legislation that aims to more effectively prevent and respond to cases of sexual assault at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, where the problem has persisted for nearly a decade despite reform efforts.

The latest effort, called the Merchant Marine Improvement Act, was included in the annual defense spending bill and now goes to President Donald Trump for approval.

The bill establishes training requirements for administrators who provide support to students and allocates more resources for safety on campus and during the year-at-sea training program.

Key provisions also provide funding for satellite phones for midshipmen to communicate weekly with academy officials while serving on ships at sea; new training requirements for an on-campus sexual assault response coordinator; and the establishment of a 24-hour confidential helpline that offers midshipmen information about resources and support services.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) proposed the legislation in June. When initially introduced, the bill also sought to bring USMMA under Title IX, the federal civil-rights law that bans gender discrimination, including sexual violence, at publicly funded colleges. That proposal was not in the final version.

Suozzi spokesman Lou Wasson said that his office would cotinue to pursue Title IX legislation through changes in federal education law.

Gillibrand and Suozzi, in separate statements, said the bill provides necessary protections to the midshipmen both at sea and on the Kings Point campus. The 74-year-old federal service academy is operated by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s agency the Maritime Administration.

“Our midshipmen will now have access to the resources and services they need when sexual assault crimes happen,” Gillibrand said.

Suozzi vowed to continue his work with the USMMA Board of Visitors, the school’s Congressional oversight panel. “I’m happy that our bill gives midshipmen the tools to feel safe and the resources they need to report sexual assault crimes,” he said.

Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act also contained USMMA reforms, including that important academy positions related to preventing sexual assault be continuously filled and a requirement that the school develop a “working group” charged with setting guidelines for shipping companies that host students during the Sea Year program.

Board of Visitors Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he supported the bill and was not aware of any major opposition to it. King said he expects Trump to sign it fairly soon.

“It sends a strong signal that Congress and the administration are opposed to any type of sexual assault and harassment,” King said.

Lawmakers will soon debate whether to bring the academy under Title IX. Any bill would likely not pass until the end of 2018, King said.

Anthony Zenkus, director of education, at the SAFE Center, a victims services agency in Bethpage, called the recent legislation “a great first step” and hopes the lawmakers “eventually bringing the academy under Title IX.”

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