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7 USMMA seniors barred from graduating have received diplomas

The Vickery Gate at the U.S. Merchant Marine

The Vickery Gate at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's main entrance. Seven former members of the 2016-17 soccer team at the academy have officially received their diplomas, five months after the school withheld the documents because of a probe into alleged misconduct. Credit: Steve Pfost

Seven former members of the 2016-17 soccer team at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy have officially received their diplomas and other credentials, five months after the school withheld the documents because of an ongoing federal investigation into alleged misconduct on a team bus in September 2016, officials said.

The students have been awarded their bachelor’s degrees and U.S. Coast Guard credentials, according to Rodney McNany, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration.

The seven seniors were placed on deferred graduate status by the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, just days before the June 17 commencement. They challenged that decision in federal court, saying their due-process rights had been violated. The case is pending.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler allowed them to participate in the Kings Point service academy’s graduation ceremony, but they did not receive their diplomas or other documents.

The academy’s disciplinary charges, read aloud in federal court in Central Islip on July 21, alleged the students committed sexually abusive acts against a freshman player on the team bus and bullied him for at least a month afterward.

At that proceeding, they were ordered to appear in separate administrative hearings before the academy’s executive board to answer the allegations of sexual misconduct, coercion and hazing. Those hearings were not open to the public.

“The charges should never have been brought in the first place,” Shaun Hogan, a Jericho-based attorney who represents five of the students, said last week. “My clients have been significantly harmed by virtue of the fact that the claims were initially made.”

Hogan declined to comment on details of the executive board hearings, but said, “They all came through them successfully. They were given some degree of sanction, and that’s the way we left it.” He declined to elaborate on the sanctions.

Helis, the superintendent, also suspended the academy’s NCAA Division III soccer team on June 9 pending the outcome of an investigation by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General. The investigation was continuing as of Thursday, according to an official in the federal agency.

Helis was not available for comment last week.

The 74-year-old institution is one of five federal service academies, educating men and women undergraduates, called midshipmen, for careers in the commercial shipping industry. It is the only academy operated by the Maritime Administration.

USMMA’s Board of Visitors, the congressional advisory panel to the school, is scheduled to meet on the Kings Point campus at 11 a.m. Monday. A discussion on sexual assault and sexual harassment is on the agenda.

Board chairman Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) was not available for comment last week.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the academy, is on the Board of Visitors.

In an interview Saturday, Suozzi said of the students’ administrative hearings, “I don’t know what transpired during those meetings and what the merits are for granting their degrees. This isn’t the first time I’m finding something like this out from the press. They [academy officials] don’t tell us anything. I am very disturbed by this.”

Federal officials, citing student privacy laws, declined to comment on the status of the executive board meetings and the students’ legal action against the school.

Six of 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.

Ronald Meister, a Manhattan-based attorney for one of the students, had no comment. Anthony J. Kuhn, a Buffalo attorney who represented the remaining student, could not be reached for comment.

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