U.S. Merchant Marine Academy officials hope to have a plan...

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy officials hope to have a plan to combat the problem of sexual harassment and assault sent to Congress soon, so sailing can resume by December. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, citing concerns about sexual assault and harassment, has again suspended a program that sends midshipmen to complete work on commercial vessels in international waters, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The announcement, sent in a Tuesday letter to midshipmen by officials from the department, which oversees the academy, said officials hope to have a plan to combat the problem sent to Congress soon, so sailing can resume by December.

"We recognize that this comes at a time when you have already been tested through nearly two years of profound disruptions and adjustments resulting from the COVID pandemic," according to the letter. "While we know that this decision will be disappointing to many, we also expect that as leaders who have chosen the path of service, you will support it and each other."

The authenticity of the letter was confirmed by Dylan Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who is on the academy's board of visitors.

For years, the academy — which trains personnel to be midshipmen working on deep-sea vessels and in the military — has struggled to combat sexual harassment and assault. The academy is one of several federal service academies and was the first in the country to admit women.

Earlier in the fall, a female cadet said on a maritime whistleblower website that an engineering supervisor 40 years her senior assaulted her during her Sea Year aboard a commercial ship in the Middle East.

Suozzi and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called the allegation "deeply disturbing" and said it "demands an immediate investigation."

In a statement provided on Wednesday, Suozzi said: "Students must be safe. Sea Year must be reinstated on a timely basis. The organizational and reporting structure must be improved. We may finally have come to a point where an "all hands on deck" approach can finally help make this Academy the national treasure it should and must be."

In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct led to the temporary suspension of Sea Year, the program in which midshipmen complete more than 300 days of work on commercial vessels in international waters.

The resumption of the program the next year came following a "zero-tolerance" policy for assault and harassment, coupled with new training procedures.

And the next year, a onetime player for the academy men's soccer team sued for $5 million, with defendants including seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches. The claim included allegations of verbal and physical abuse, including by a sex assault, and that the misconduct was allowed to go unchecked and, in some cases, the coaches encouraged it. A settlement of $1.4 million was paid in the case in December 2020.

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