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USMMA sexual-conduct reforms in bill going to Obama’s desk

The entrance of the United States Merchant Marine

The entrance of the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

A bill headed to President Barack Obama’s desk includes reforms that aim to prevent sexual assault and harassment at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, where reports of misconduct have roiled the school and led to a suspension of student training on commercial ships.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the 73-year-old service academy, halted the Sea Year program completely in June after reports of sexual misconduct and bullying and later partially reinstated it, allowing cadets to train on federal vessels but not commercial ships.

The department in September hired an outside company to review the “root causes” of sexual assault and harassment both on campus and at sea.

The reform measures include a requirement that key positions at the academy relating to sexual assault be filled continuously; establish training requirements for sexual assault advocates who work with students; and require the academy to form a “working group” responsible for setting guidelines with which shipping companies must comply.

The office of inspector general, within the transportation department, would be required to audit the academy’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct by March 2018.

“Enacting these reforms will be a step toward a needed culture change at agencies where women and men often work together in close quarters for long periods at sea,” Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said in a news release announcing the legislation’s full congressional passage Thursday.

The reforms are part of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2017 fiscal year. The bill includes similar requirements at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), chairman of the Merchant Marine Academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, called the bill “an important step” in combating sexual assault and harassment at the school, saying it improves prevention, reporting and response.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), a co-author of the academy-specific reforms in the measure, said in a statement, “The defense bill will now include critical provisions that will help strengthen and diversify the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy as well as enable the institution to proactively take steps to prevent sexual assault on the academy campus and during off-campus training.”

The academy’s accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, put the academy on warning in June and urged its leadership to improve in several areas, highlighting the Sea Year program for scrutiny. The school must update Middle States by March 1 of its progress in addressing the concerns outlined in that report.

At the start of the current academic year, USMMA had 929 students — 756 men and 173 women, according to federal enrollment data.

The Sea Year program’s suspension drew the ire of the academy’s alumni and parents organizations, as well as leaders of the maritime industry.

Later in the day Thursday, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation issued what it called “preliminary” findings from an ongoing study that found “no evidence that Sea Year is unsafe, nor does it indicate a negative campus culture stemming from students’ year at sea.”

The alumni association in October announced it had formed a task force to examine the issue of sexual misconduct at the academy, and the task force engaged a consulting firm to conduct a study.

The nine-page document issued by that firm Thursday found that “the culture at Kings Point is neither tolerant of nor conducive to sexual assault.” Students “were not worried about their personal safety while serving on commercial vessels during Sea Year,” said the preliminary report, which cited a “lack of clarity” about “what constitutes sexual harassment both at Kings Point and during Sea Year.”

The preliminary report recommended that the academy reinstate the Sea Year program.

“We found no evidence that serving on commercial vessels puts the midshipmen at unnecessary, heightened risk,” the preliminary report said. It recommended that students improve communication among midshipmen, faculty and senior leadership, and that the academy “develop a sexual assault and harassment curriculum that is focused on building positive relationships.”

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