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Kirsten Gillibrand targets misconduct at Merchant Marine Academy

Vickery Gate, seen Feb. 22, 2012, at the

Vickery Gate, seen Feb. 22, 2012, at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

WASHINGTON — To address widespread complaints of sexual misconduct at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday will propose more training, a better reporting system and giving midshipmen at sea satellite phones to call for help if sexually abused.

The proposals also would for the first time make the academy subject to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination based on gender that applies to colleges and universities.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has pushed for changes in the way the military and higher education handle sexual assaults, is scheduled to appear Tuesday at the American Merchant Marine Museum at the Kings Point campus to announce her proposals and legislation.

In July, the academy’s advisory board shocked many lawmakers when it reported that nearly two-thirds of women and 10 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed on campus and at sea during the 2014-15 school year.

While 17 percent of female midshipmen said they had been sexually assaulted, only one reported a case to school officials in that school year. In a survey, 78 percent of the women assaulted said they did not feel comfortable making a report and 69 percent said they thought they would be blamed for it.

About 900 midshipmen, a fifth of them women, attend the academy.

The reported misconduct has put the academy’s accreditation in jeopardy and led its officials in June to abruptly suspend Sea Year, in which midshipmen work on a vessel for about 300 days to fulfill a requirement of going to sea.

The most serious cases of sexual harassment and assault occur during 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 will propose that the academy give each midshipman on a vessel at sea a satellite communications device so they can report sexual assaults. Her proposal would provide federal funding to purchase the equipment.

She also will say 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 Sea Year are safe. She would require sexual assault training for the vessel’s crew.

Gillibrand also will propose making Title IX apply to the academy to give officials a mechanism to enforce sexual harassment and assault policies. Currently, the academy is not subject to Title IX or the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

To improve midshipmen’s willingness to report sexual misconduct, Gillibrand urges the creation of an independent advocate and hiring additional staff to help complainants, setting up a 24-hour hotline and providing additional training of the academy’s staff for preventing, handling and investigating complaints.


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