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Merchant Marine academy releases plan, seeks to foster 'climate of respect'

Fostering a "climate of respect" is among the six priorities outlined in a five-year strategic plan released Tuesday by the leadership of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point.

The 11-page report details those priorities through 2023 for the 75-year-old federal public service academy, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military.

Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the academy’s maritime administrator, and James Helis, the school’s superintendent, said the plan involved an “unparalleled” level of research and dialogue with academy stakeholders.

The 18-month process, they wrote in a letter accompanying the plan, involved gathering the viewpoints of more than 700 midshipmen, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and members of the military and marine industry.

“It is, in its truest sense, an Academy plan produced by the Merchant Marine Academy community and family, focused on launching the Academy toward its centennial in 2043,” the letter states.

The school, which has an enrollment of more than 900, has struggled in recent years to address sexual misconduct, harassment, bullying and coercion in its ranks, Newsday reported in 2017.

The new strategic plan makes no specific mention of those issues but instead focuses on cultivating a "culture in which every academy community member is respected, valued, and can fulfill his or her maximum potential as a leader of exemplary character."

Goals for improving the culture, the report states, include fostering a "climate of respect" among students, faculty and staff; instilling a sense of "personal responsibility" across the Academy and ensuring "honest and transparent communication."

The document also proposes creating a master plan to improve the campus' buildings, vessels and equipment and incorporating more modern technology, including better Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. The plan suggests no specific infrastructure improvements nor does it provide a time frame or cost for the changes.

Other priorities outlined in the plan include creating a "rigorous, coherent and flexible education program;" increasing the Academy's public awareness through branding and marketing and recruiting and retaining more midshipmen athletes that can participate in NCAA varsity sports, intramural teams and programs.

“My first reaction to the plan is very positive,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the school’s Board of Visitors, a congressional advisory panel. “It seems to address core issues at the Academy such as institutional culture and improvements to the Academy’s infrastructure.”

Rep. Thomas Suozzi, who is also on the advisory board, issued a statement saying: "The Academy's strategic plan is another step in the right direction."

Documents and midshipmen interviews showed the school had for decades struggled with handling reports of sexual misconduct both on campus and during the Sea Year, a program when midshipmen work on vessels in internationally waters, Newsday has reported.

Current and former students, in interviews, spoke of a campus culture in which they felt discouraged about speaking up and the fear of being ostracized if they did.

Academy officials canceled its men’s 2017-18 soccer season after several players were part of a federal investigation for allegedly taking part of in a sexually abusive act against a freshman in September 2016.

Seven seniors were barred from commencement, eventually suing the academy in federal court for their graduation documents. They were granted their degrees in November 2017 but remained the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice probe.

With Candice Ferrette

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