They call it the “safe word.”
It’s the secret code that cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point are advised to use if things get really rough during their year-long shipboard training on merchant vessels thousands of miles from shore, or at ports far from home. Women — and men, in some cases — can use it as a fail-safe if the lewd comments and unwanted advances from fellow sailors escalate to something worse. The government will bring them ashore.
But like many efforts by the federal service academy to confront inappropriate behavior, the safe word has not worked.
It was “Goldfish” in 2012, the year Erika Lawson, an engine cadet on a commercial ship for what is known as “Sea Year,” was pushed against the back seat of a taxi and groped by the chief mate to force her to kiss him. She tried to push him away.
Lawson was 19 and didn’t use the safe word — provided by administrators — to email or phone the school. She was 7,810 miles from shore, in port in Saipan in the North Pacific.
Few cases like this are ever reported. But the Merchant Marine Academy has the highest rate of sexual assault and harassment of any U.S. military school. While the school received just one report of sexual assault in the 2014-15 academic year, student surveys taken by the government reveal that 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men experienced unwanted advances or other sexual harassment. And 17.2 percent of women and 2 percent of men endured some kind of sexual assault, defined as unwanted contact, from groping to rape.
Those numbers exceed the combined rates at West Point and the Naval, Air Force and Coast Guard academies, where 48 percent of women and 10 percent of men described sexual harassment in similar surveys. For both genders, sexual assault rates were half that of Kings Point, the first of the service academies to admit women 42 years ago but which today trains the fewest. Today, about 15 percent of Kings Point students are women.
For years, these alarming statistics were ignored by the federal government. But with its accreditation threatened and facing growing scrutiny from Congress, its advisory board and its federal watchdog, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in June suspended Kings Point’s most prominent feature, the grueling year at sea where midshipmen apprentice on large deep-sea ships.
A federal service academy never has been in danger of losing its accreditation.
“In our judgment, we could no longer continue to send them to sea with the status quo,” Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the school superintendent, said in an interview in his office on the campus. Citing rising sexual misconduct both at sea and on campus, school leaders say they won’t reinstate Sea Year until midshipmen are safe.
They decided to bring home 116 cadets who already were at sea. “This wasn’t a problem we could fix as we go,” said Helis, a retired Army colonel hired in 2012 as the academy’s fourth superintendent in eight years.
In this atmosphere, victims have been afraid to report unwanted advances.
Back on campus in Kings Point, it took Lawson more than a year to file a “restricted report,” which informed the school that she had a bad experience. There were no names and no investigation.
“I feel like you’re taught there to keep your head down and just get through it,” said Lawson, 24 and working as a third assistant engineer on a cruise ship out of New York Harbor. “The sexual assault policies are a total joke. Everybody would just snicker and laugh during the training.”
The Post does not normally identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but several agreed to speak on the record to bring public attention to what they believe is a serious problem at the academy.
The school is a military and civilian hybrid whose glory days came during World War II. Its heavily unionized fleet is dwindling amid growing automation and competition from foreign ships, which transport goods for less than American vessels.
Kings Point trains about 1,000 students tuition-free for four years, including up to 330 days at sea. Students are nominated by their member of Congress. Graduates are licensed by the Coast Guard and must work five years in the maritime industry or eight in the Navy Reserves, unless they go on active duty.
Sexual misconduct is a black mark on the increasing efforts of the Obama administration to curtail harassment and assault on college campuses and in the military. The problem has been pervasive in some corners of the government itself, with revelations in January of years of sexual harassment in the National Park Service. The issue is well-known in the military, which has developed new policies to encourage victims to file formal complaints.
Under pressure from Congress, Kings Point hired its first sexual assault coordinator four years ago and beefed up online and face-to-face prevention training. But officials were shocked to find so few victims reporting when surveys told them otherwise.
Helis said the prevention training and reporting systems are not effective enough, and faulted the leadership curriculum. Furthermore, lawmakers on the congressional Board of Visitors are so concerned they pushed legislation sponsored by Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) through the Senate in July requiring more rigorous reporting and training policies. The legislation also urges the academy to consider alternatives to Sea Year.
Kings Point has been troubled by years of mismanagement, high staff turnover and leadership turmoil and is effectively in receivership, with Washington controlling its budget, hiring and other operations. Some graduates accuse the Obama administration of coddling students and inflating the extent of sexual misconduct.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education — which does 10-year accreditation reviews for the U.S. Education Department — placed the Merchant Marine Academy on warning in June, citing failures of leadership and governance, administration and student services. The commission described a “campus climate and incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault that have been a serious and recognized problem for over 10 years.”
“The pervasiveness of the incidents is perceived as undeniable and disturbing,” the report said, criticizing the academy’s efforts to prevent misconduct as “insufficient and ineffective.”
Helis and Maritime Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, whose small agency at Transportation oversees the academy, said a “steady accumulation of evidence” led to the drastic decision to cancel Sea Year, setting off a civil war with parents and a vocal group of older graduates who say that the school is overreacting. Some parents are demanding that their sons and daughters return to sea.
Some of the behavior at sea carries over to the Kings Point campus, Jaenichen said. Midshipmen return from Sea Year with “a new bias that shifted their thought process to sexist behavior.”
Until last year, the academy employed a former Marine on the faculty who called female midshipmen “cookies in my cookie jar” and knocked on their dorm room doors at night, four recent graduates said.
Helis confirmed that the instructor “no longer works here.” He declined further comment.
“The Merchant Marine is 20 years behind what we experience as gender equality,” said Ali Denning, a 2012 graduate who is a Marine inspector for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The shipping industry — which hosts hundreds of Kings Point cadets for Sea Year on its vessels — and the Merchant Marine union are working with the school to strengthen its training to prevent sexual offenses.
“The notion that it is hard to change the maritime culture — we don’t accept that,” said Michael Roberts, general counsel for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Crowley Maritime Corp., which is leading the effort.
Rebekkah Stoeckler, a 2014 Kings Point graduate, said the school culture is unforgiving to victims who come forward.
As a freshman, she said she was assaulted by a popular midshipman assigned as her mentor. On a boat owned by the school, students were celebrating a sailing race and drinking. Stoeckler went below deck to lie down. The student pinned her to the bed and started to undress her. Another student stopped the assault.
Stoeckler said she went to the campus police, but her report was not kept confidential. After being told she “asked for it” because she was drinking, she said she was grounded on campus for six weeks.
She eventually withdrew her complaint. Now 25 and working on tugs and barges out of Houston, she said, “In hindsight, I was bullied into that decision and I wish I had had the courage to follow it through.”
Some angry parents and graduates are pushing back on the cancellation of Sea Year, even though the academy has found other training for students on Navy transport ships and ships used by state schools. They have launched a public-relations campaign on Facebook and in the trade press to stop the stand-down.
“It is not the same when a dozen or two cadets stand around on the bridge and watch the mate go about his duties,” said Terry Gray, who is on the parents association’s executive board. “All our midshipmen need to sail on commercial ships.”
The resistance also is coming from older female graduates, who were filmed in an online video clip saying they did not experience sexual misconduct during Sea Year.
“The sexual harassment issue has been around for years,” said Charles Hill, a former head of the school’s national alumni foundation. “Why cancel the Sea Year now?”
Said Hill: “I have never talked to anybody who told me they were sexually assaulted at Kings Point.”