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Study: USMMA must fix sexual assault, harassment problems

A ship's propeller on display outside the American

A ship's propeller on display outside the American Merchant Marine Museum located at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Aug. 31, 2016. Credit: Jeremy Bales

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy must make changes to address longtime problems with sexual assault and sexual harassment on the Kings Point campus and during students’ training at sea aboard federal and commercial vessels, according to a report released Friday.

The service academy continues to struggle with a climate where a “lack of trust and a culture of fear” deters students from alerting authorities when they or others are victims of sexual assault or harassment, said the 138-page study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the school.

The academy also does not have the programs, policies and leadership to adequately address the situation, with some senior uniformed staff and faculty members in denial of the problem and unclear about how to handle incidents, the study said.

It recommends that USMMA develop a comprehensive, multiyear plan to achieve “mutual respect and zero tolerance” for sexual assault and harassment, and says “a sense of personal responsibility” must be instilled “at all levels within USMMA to build and institutionalize a culture of trust, respect and accountability.”

Transportation Department officials in September approved a $363,000 contract for the “cultural audit” after USMMA was placed on warning by its accrediting agency and results of a 2014 student survey were raised at a summer meeting of the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional advisory panel. Some respondents to the earlier survey had spoken confidentially of the prevalence of sexual violence, coercion and bullying.

The concerns prompted Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in June to completely halt the Sea Year program, a key element of the 73-year-old academy’s curriculum — and a graduation requirement — that allows students to gain training and experience on federal and U.S. commercial vessels. Foxx later partially reinstated the Sea Year, allowing students to be on military and federal vessels only.

On Friday, in a letter to Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy’s superintendent, Foxx authorized the reinstatement of sea training on commercial vessels in “a phased-in, company-by-company manner,” provided that the firms comply with a credentialing criteria that is recommended in the report.

Foxx is expected to leave his post this month; President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine L. Chao, a former Labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to head the agency.

The study released Friday was conducted by Logistics Management Institute, a Virginia-based government contractor. Federal officials commissioned the 60-day assessment to identify “the root causes” of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the academy.

The study highlighted alcohol use as another component of the academy’s culture.

“Academy disciplinary records confirm that alcohol is one of the most common serious disciplinary offenses, and many interviewees cited alcohol as being a factor in incidents of sexual assault,” the study’s authors wrote.

Auditors from LMI said they reviewed literature, conducted interviews with academy stakeholders, analyzed and compared data and developed findings and recommendations.

Interviews with 162 people representing federal transportation agencies, the academy’s leadership and administration, faculty, students, alumni and staff were conducted, the report said.

James Tobin, president of the USMMA Alumni Association & Foundation, who has been a vocal critic of suspension of Sea Year, said the study “is first and foremost an indictment of the academy’s leadership, whose efforts to date to address sexual misconduct fall woefully short when compared to the work of their peers at academies and colleges around the country, who are facing similar issues.”

The alumni association formed its own task force to look into the causes of sexual assault and sexual harassment. That task force released a nine-page report of preliminary findings that showed sexual assault and sexual harassment were not a problem at the school.

Referring to Foxx’s move to reauthorize the Sea Year on commercial vessels, Tobin said that “the report in no way justifies the unprecedented cancellation of a program so intertwined with our country’s national security and economic success that it has never before been suspended, not even during times of war.”

With Scott Eidler

Highlights of USMMA study

Findings:

  • Academy does not “present a unified message” on sexual assault and sexual harassment.
  • Preventative programs “tend to be reactive rather than based on a unified, strategic approach.”
  • Culture of “victim-blaming” and “fear of retaliation” interferes with intervention and reporting efforts.
  • Academy does not have a fully resourced office to deal with sexual assault and harassment.

Recommendations:

  • Academy immediately should implement a credentialing program for shipping companies on whose vessels students train.
  • School should develop a “comprehensive and integrated” plan for prevention and response to achieve “mutual respect and zero tolerance” for sexual assault and sexual harassment.
  • Academy should promote a culture of “advocating for and protecting the victim.”
  • School should make improvements to “more fully prepare and support midshipmen” during the Sea Year.
  • Academy should establish a process for securing feedback from the Sea Year.

Source: Logistics Management Institute culture audit of USMMA, commissioned by U.S. Transportation Department

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