Several members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy men’s soccer team are barred from commencement on Saturday because they are subjects of a federal investigation, and five of them are suing the Kings Point school for reinstatement of their right to graduate, according to officials and court records.
The academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, notified the soccer players of their deferred graduation status on June 2, according to the lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.
The students are under investigation by the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the federal agency that oversees the academy.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of USMMA’s Board of Visitors, the school’s congressional oversight panel, told Newsday the investigation stemmed from an incident that was “something of a sexual nature” and occurred on a team bus in September.
“They [academy officials] told me it was an incident on the bus, it was serious, up to seven might not graduate” with their class, King (R-Seaford) said Tuesday. “We’ll have to wait and see once the investigation is completed.”
The congressman was notified by academy officials 10 days ago that an investigation was underway, he said.
“I don’t know if they were all physically involved or some of them were witnesses,” King said. “It’s something of a sexual nature. I’m not trying to be clever in saying it that way, but it is certainly something involving a sexual nature.”
Officials with the Office of Inspector General, citing an open case, declined to provide details on the investigation, including who was involved or what prompted it — whether there was an incident or incidents, or a complaint. They also would not say how many members of the team allegedly were involved or identify anyone associated with the investigation.
A spokeswoman with the Maritime Administration, the Transportation Department agency that operates the academy, declined to comment Tuesday.
Members of the Class of 2017 are slated to return to the Kings Point campus on Wednesday. The academy’s commencement is scheduled at 10 a.m. Saturday at Tomb Field, after two days filled with rehearsals, awards convocations, special events and the traditional graduation ball.
Two lawsuits were filed in federal court — one Monday by four seniors and another Tuesday by one senior. In both lawsuits, the students say they were notified by Helis on June 2 that their graduation would be deferred because of an investigation by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
One of the lawsuits pegs the incident as occurring on a team bus returning from a match against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. According to an NCAA schedule, the two teams played in New London, Connecticut, on Sept. 10 and tied 0-0.
The complaint from the four seniors said the investigation was initiated by a freshman on the team. The team was traveling on a bus to a hotel, the complaint says, and “consistent with school tradition” the upperclassmen “teased” the freshman members of the team.
The freshman threw a banana at an upperclassman on the bus, the complaint says, and some upperclassmen “apparently” threw water on the freshman. It alleges that the freshman said “he was dosed [sic] with urine.”
The complaint by the four seniors says that none of them participated in conduct directed at the freshman or “any conduct that could be considered harassment.”
All five seniors say they were not given an opportunity for a hearing and that the academy denied their requests for reconsideration of the decision barring them from graduation. The senior who filed the separate lawsuit says he was not on the bus and has accepted a job offer that is contingent upon his graduation.
An attorney from Hogan & Cassell LLP, the Jericho firm representing the four seniors, could not be reached for comment. Ronald Meister of Manhattan, the attorney for the senior who says he was not on the bus, declined to comment, saying, “We’ll do our litigating in court.”
A man who said he is the father of the freshman, reached Tuesday by phone, declined to comment until he had spoken with an attorney.
The 74-year-old service academy has been under scrutiny for its handling of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases and for a campus culture in which retaliation and coercion have been documented problems.
The inspector general’s office in May launched an audit to review the academy’s program on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault. It must report to Congress by March 31.
The school also is on warning by its academic accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, for failing to comply with five of 14 quality standards. The Philadelphia-based commission is scheduled to meet June 22 and is expected to consider whether the academy will return to good standing. The school remains accredited while on warning.
Helis informed students, faculty and staff of the inspector general’s probe in an email Thursday afternoon and said he had suspended the men’s soccer program until further notice.
Newsday obtained a copy of the email, confirming its contents with federal officials on Monday.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the academy, said Tuesday he was “aggravated” that the Transportation Department had not briefed him about the matter. Suozzi is newly appointed to the Board of Visitors.
“Either they’re doing a better job, and people are feeling more comfortable to report incidents of sexual harassment, or they haven’t addressed the problem in a serious way and they’re just giving lip service,” Suozzi said of the academy. “Either way, it’s a serious issue.”
USMMA’s men’s soccer is a Division III program in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The team’s record last fall was 13-5-2.