Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday announced legislation to address sexual misconduct at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy that would provide more instruction and a better system to report incidents, including giving satellite phones to cadets during sea training so they could call for help if they are victims or if they suspect abuse.
The proposal also would for the first time make the academy subject to Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination based on gender that applies to colleges and universities.
“In our military, in our service academies and in our civilian colleges and universities, we’ve seen many of the same disturbing patterns play out over and over again,” Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said during a news conference in the American Merchant Marine Museum on the Kings Point campus.
Gillibrand, who has pushed for changes in the way the military and institutions of higher education handle sexual assaults, said she is working with Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska. She intends to introduce the bipartisan bill as soon as possible, she said.
In a statement, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, said the USMMA “is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment for all midshipmen. Today’s visit with Senator Gillibrand provided USMMA senior staff and midshipmen an opportunity to discuss the world-class education provided by the USMMA, some of the challenges we currently face, and our work to build a climate of inclusion for all on campus and at sea.”
Sexual misconduct at the academy was launched into the national spotlight in early summer. Federal officials in June suspended the Sea Year program that sends midshipmen on deep-sea vessels, and the academy’s advisory board reported in July that in a survey during the 2014-15 school year, nearly two-thirds of women and 10 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed on campus and at sea.
USMMA is one of five federal service academies in the country, all of which were single-sex institutions when the Title IX statute passed in 1972 and remain exempt from its protocols. In 1974, it became the first academy to admit women. The current enrollment is about 900, with about 20 percent women. The students are called midshipmen on campus and cadets while at sea.
The Title IX law applies to all civilian institutions that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education, including about 16,500 local school districts and 7,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums.
The Department of Transportation, which oversees USMMA, would be responsible for Title IX enforcement, a spokesman with Gillibrand’s office said Tuesday.
While 17 percent of female midshipmen in the survey done in the 2014-15 school year said they had been sexually assaulted, only one reported a case to academy officials, according to the document.
To improve midshipmen’s willingness to report sexual misconduct, Gillibrand is urging creation of an independent advocate and hiring of more staff to help complainants, as well as provision of a 24-hour hotline and additional training of the academy’s staff for preventing, handling and investigating complaints.
The reported misconduct is among the reasons the academy’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, placed USMMA on warning and officials abruptly suspended the Sea Year, federal officials said. The sea training has since been partially restored to allow cadets on federal and state vessels, but not commercial ships.
The most serious cases of sexual harassment and assault occur during the Sea Year, when midshipmen often are out of communication with the academy, leaving them vulnerable to unwanted sexual activities, the advisory board report said.
Gillibrand proposed that the academy give each cadet on a vessel at sea a satellite communications device so she or he can report sexual assaults. Her proposal would provide federal funding to purchase the equipment.
She also said the academy should work with the merchant marine industry and conduct spot-checks to ensure that the commercial vessels on which the midshipmen serve during the Sea Year are safe. She would require sexual assault training for the vessels’ crews.
Gillibrand did not provide a specific timeline for when the Sea Year suspension should be fully lifted.
“We would like to see it resumed now, for sure,” said Jim Tobin, president of the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, on campus after the event. “We believe there’s enough in place now that it can be resumed.”