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Report: USMMA got 4 reports of sexual assault in 2015-16

Midshipmen walk in file on the campus of

Midshipmen walk in file on the campus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy had four cases of sexual assault in the 2015-16 school year — all incidents of male students allegedly assaulting female students — according to a U.S. Department of Transportation report.

Eight cases of sexual harassment were reported to the 74-year-old federal service academy during that school year, according to the document.

The report, dated Jan. 12, was signed by former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx before he left office with the change in presidential administrations. Newsday obtained the report from the government this week.

Foxx, in the document, called the findings “highly disturbing” and wrote that they show “these behaviors not only continue to occur at the academy, but in some instances, according to the survey results, are increasing.”

The new report also said the Sea Year — the academy’s signature training program, which is a graduation requirement — is “a source of unwanted sexual contact incidents.”

Newsday reported in January that sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexism have persisted at USMMA for nearly a decade despite attempts at reform, according to public documents and interviews with midshipmen. At the start of the current school year, the school had 929 students, about 18 percent of them female.

The academy is within the jurisdiction of the Transportation Department and is run by the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD — unlike the other four federal service academies, which are operated by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The problems have been spotlighted in a series of Transportation Department annual reports that are mandated by federal law.

The latest figures bring to 18 the number of assault cases the academy has handled since 2008, according to documents examined by Newsday.

MARAD did not respond to a request for comment.

The required reports detail the number of reported cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the Kings Point campus and during the mandatory Sea Year training. The law also requires an anonymous survey of students; in those surveys, estimates are given of the number of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases, including those that were unreported.

The Jan. 12 report was produced by the Defense Manpower Data Center, a contractor that conducts reports and surveys at all of the service academies and has done so at USMMA since the document that covered the 2011-12 school year.

Authors of the new report wrote, “The academy finds it disturbing that midshipmen have lost confidence in their peers to take steps to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment and that they do not see their own leadership as making honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

They also pointed to challenges in changing the campus’ culture, writing that midshipmen fear they will be “stigmatized” by other students “or punished for a separate offense connected with the assault, such as underage alcohol consumption.”

The report analyzed data from 647 students who participated in an April 2016 anonymous survey. Results from students who took the survey in August and November have not yet been analyzed, and an amended report will be released during the summer, the report states.

Foxx wrote of the reported cases and the anonymous survey results, “This was a higher number of reports than in previous years, and it indicates that significant improvement is still required.”

In June, amid reports of sexual misconduct and bullying, Foxx ordered the complete suspension of the Sea Year. He amended that order in July to allow students to train only on federal vessels.

The suspension drew outcries of opposition from some parents, students, leaders of the maritime industry, labor unions and the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation.

Six days before the Jan. 12 report, Foxx altered his stance, writing to members of the campus community that he supported a “phased-in” approach to resumption of training on commercial vessels.

Last week, MARAD officials said students again will train on three commercial shipping carriers starting next month, after implementation of new procedures, including a ban on fraternization between shipping crew members and cadets, as USMMA midshipmen are known at sea.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional advisory panel, said in a statement, “It is my hope going forward that the new safety measures that I have advocated for will prevent these types of terrible assaults.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said she plans to introduce legislation that would reform the system for midshipmen’s reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment, said the report “confirms what we already know — there is a problem and the academy needs to do more to fix it. Because they are civilians, midshipmen do not qualify for the same resources and support provided by the other military service academies, while at the same time, the academy doesn’t have to meet the same standards as other civilian colleges and universities.

“The academy is stuck in a no man’s land and the midshipmen are the ones who are suffering the consequences,” Gillibrand said.

Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the school, said “a lot of people affiliated with the Merchant Marine Academy are excited that the Sea Year is up and running again, but that doesn’t mean that this issue with sexual harassment is resolved. . . . The culture needs to be changed.”

Capt. James Tobin, president of the Alumni Association and Foundation, said in a statement that “these latest numbers continue to cause us concern about leadership at the academy.”

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