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Task force to examine preventing sexual misconduct at USMMA

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point,

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, seen Feb. 18, 2012, suspended the popular Sea Year program in June. Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s alumni association announced Friday the formation of a task force to prevent sexual misconduct on the Kings Point campus and on training vessels during the Sea Year, a key part of the school’s curricula.

Officials from the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation said the group will engage with key stakeholders to examine measures put in place to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault — namely, suspension of the Sea Year, when midshipmen work and travel on commercial and federal vessels in national and international waters.

“Task force members will seek to work cooperatively with the academy’s administration to develop a coordinated response to address sexual misconduct at USMMA,” John Arntzen, chairman of the association’s board of directors, said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “By engaging alumni, parents, current midshipmen, and representatives of the maritime industry, the task force will be able to contribute valuable insights and propose solutions.”

In the coming weeks, the group plans to announce selection of a third-party expert recognized on the topic of preventing sexual misconduct, who will perform an independent study used to provide recommendations “on best practices and better implementation of existing strategies to eliminate sexual misconduct at the USMMA,” alumni association officials said.

Arntzen was unavailable for an interview on Friday. The group’s president, James Tobin, also was unavailable Friday, a spokesman said. The independent nonprofit association was founded in 2001 as a charitable organization.

The alumni association’s announcement comes four days after the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the school, said it hired a consultant — Logistics Management Institute, based in Tysons, Virginia — to “assess the culture of the academy.”

“The contractor will begin work immediately to assess the history, culture and climate of USMMA and the Sea Year Program,” according to the announcement posted on the department’s website and dated Oct. 3. “This will include a review of all relevant prevention policies and reporting procedures, as well as several other factors identified within the statement of work.”

After a 60-day review, the contractor will submit its analysis and recommendations to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “who is committed to eliminating these issues and building a climate of inclusion for all at the USMMA,” the agency’s announcement said.

The Merchant Marine Academy, one of five undergraduate federal service academies, trains men and women to work as licensed officers prepared to operate a merchant fleet for both commercial and military transport during war and peace.

The students are called midshipmen, although about 18 percent of the student body is female. Acceptance to the school is competitive and requires a recommendation from a member of Congress.

In June, the academy was placed on warning by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its accrediting agency, after a report found it was out-of-compliance with five of 14 requirements for good standing, including governance, institutional assessments and financial planning.

The school remains accredited while on warning, which is the lowest of the commission’s noncompliance actions, and has up to two years to work to reverse the ruling.

Concerns about sexual misconduct came to light after the academy’s administration and federal officials suspended the popular Sea Year program in June. The 18-month training program was partially reinstated in July, allowing midshipmen to serve on federal ships but not commercial vessels.

In mid-July, a report released at an advisory board meeting in Washington, D.C., showed nearly two-thirds of women and one-tenth of men enrolled at the academy said they had experienced sexual harassment on campus and during sea training during the 2014-15 school year.

The Sea Year suspension, or stand-down, has drawn controversy and ire from many alumni and parents of midshipmen who say sexual misconduct is not a systemic problem on the vessels.

The 218 midshipmen immediately affected by the stand-down either have gone to sea on a federal vessel or are in an internship. The decision regarding the resumption of Sea Year on commercial vessels will be delayed until the independent assessment of the culture on campus and at sea is complete, Transportation Department spokeswoman Susan Lagana said.

“The secretary is interested in a transformational change at the academy, one that creates a culture that protects these young women and men and ensures respect for everyone,” Lagana said, referring to Foxx.

Calls and emails to the external affairs office on the Kings Point campus Friday seeking comment were not returned.

“There’s concern that sexual harassment is being raised to divert the attention away from the fact that the school’s accreditation is in trouble,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), outgoing chairman of the academy’s Board of Visitors, an advisory panel composed of eight lawmakers.

King said he has fielded dozens of calls from alumni and parents of midshipmen requesting to have the full Sea Year reinstated. He said he believes the alumni association is conducting its own study on sexual misconduct because the group does not trust the Transportation Department’s review.

“There’s a concern that the company that was picked has predetermined what the result will be,” King said. “No one is denying that there was some amount of sexual harassment, but they are questioning to what extent it occurs and whether it warrants the canceling of the Sea Year.”

King was among a group of 13 lawmakers who sent a letter in early September asking federal officials to reinstate the Sea Year.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), also a member of the Board of Visitors, sent a separate letter to federal officials in early September commending them on suspension of the Sea Year until the safety of all midshipmen is guaranteed.

“There is no single issue more important than the safety of midshipmen both on campus and at sea,” Israel said Friday. “The alumni association’s announcement that they’re creating a task force is an important and positive step forward, and I will continue to work with the academy to use every tool at our disposal to eradicate sexual assault.”

Task force members

The USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation has announced creation of a task force on the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, both at the Kings Point campus and during midshipmen’s sea training.

According to an alumni association release Friday, task force members include:

  • Jane R. Carpenter, first female commander of the U.S. Maritime Service Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University’s Texas Maritime Academy.
  • Capt. Kevin P. Coyne, president, Polaris Marine Partners.
  • Mike Jewell, former president, Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association.
  • Andrea M. Morrison, licensed master mariner and chief mate for Crowley Maritime.
  • Thomas F. McCaffery, president, McCaffery & Associates.
  • Breanna E. Linsley, naval architect, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington.
  • Eileen S. Roberson, retired U.S. Navy Reserve captain who served as director of total force management for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, among other Navy and U.S. Transportation Department positions.

Roberson, a USMMA alum, will chair the task force. Coyne, Morrison, McCaffery and Linsley also are USMMA alumni.

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