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What we know about the USMMA graduation ban, federal probe

Cadets march at New York Fleet Week ceremony

Cadets march at New York Fleet Week ceremony May 24, 2017. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

What we know:

  • The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s men’s soccer program has been suspended pending further notice and several students are barred from graduating Saturday, because of a federal investigation into student conduct.
  • Five students were suing for reinstatement of their right to graduate, but a federal judge Thursday ruled the students will not receive their diplomas or other certificates at Saturday’s graduation on the Kings Point campus. The students will be allowed to walk with their classmates in the ceremony.
  • Two more students have sinced joined the lawsuit.
  • Withholding of the students’ diplomas stems from an alleged incident involving upperclassmen and a freshman player that occurred on a team bus in September 2016, according to officials and court documents.
  • On June 2, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, superintendent of the academy, notified several seniors on the soccer team that they were being placed on “Deferred Graduate status, effective immediately.”
  • He later notified USMMA students, faculty and staff of the soccer program’s suspension, citing the federal investigation. He wrote the suspension was “pending resolution of the matters under investigation.”
  • The investigation by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General involves “alleged assault,” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Knapp, who represented the academy in federal court.
  • Knapp said the students may have violated the school’s honor code and therefore would not meet the requirements to graduate.
  • A lawsuit by seniors seeking the ability to graduate says a freshman initiated the investigation. Those plaintiffs say that on a team bus headed to a hotel, upperclassmen “teased” the freshmen members, which was “consistent with school tradition.”
  • The student plaintiffs’ lawsuit says the freshman believed he was “dosed [sic] with urine” on the team bus. They say upperclassmen “apparently” threw water on the freshman. The seniors said none of them participated in “any conduct that could be considered harassment.” Another senior, in a separate lawsuit, said he was not on the trip.
  • Lawyers for the students contended that the academy denied them due process before barring them from graduating with their class.
  • Both sides of the lawsuit are scheduled to be back in court on July 6 to hear the students’ case on why their full graduation should be reinstated.
  • The campus in recent years has been the subject of increased federal scrutiny for its handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints. The school received 18 official complaints of sexual assault between the 2008-09 and 2015-16 school years, government documents show.
  • The school was placed on warning in June 2016 by its academic accreditor — a first for a federal service academy — for failing to meet five of 14 quality standards.
  • Among the areas cited for improvement were programs addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as the academy’s governance, leadership and finances. The accrediting agency is scheduled to meet on June 22 and will consider what progress USMMA has made and whether to adjust its status.

What we don’t know:

  • The nature of the incident that allegedly occurred on the USMMA men’s soccer team’s bus in September 2016.
  • How many players were involved in the alleged incident and the level of involvement.
  • Whether disciplinary actions or sanctions were taken against other USMMA soccer team players or members of the coaching staff.
  • Whether there were other related alleged incidents involving members of the soccer team.
  • How long the Office of Inspector General’s investigation will take.
  • How long the men’s soccer program will be suspended and whether the academy will be able to field a team in the fall.


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