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Sexual misconduct at Merchant Marine Academy has persisted, records show

Chelsea Tapper, a 2014 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, spoke about her experience on the Kings Point campus in a Newsday/News 12 Long Island interview on Dec. 6, 2016. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely, News 12 Long Island)

Sexual assaults, harassment and sexism have been documented at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for almost a decade, both on campus and during the mandatory Sea Year training that is the school’s hallmark program, a review of public records by Newsday shows.

The sexual misconduct at the 74-year-old service academy in Kings Point has persisted because of a climate in which female and male midshipmen are unsure about where to turn for help, feel discouraged about speaking up and fear being ostracized if they do, current and former students said in interviews over the past two months.

Unfilled public safety and victim advocate positions, assault prevention training that “failed to meet the expectations” of women on campus, and unlocked doors during required nighttime bunk checks are among the other problems detailed in U.S. Department of Transportation reports dating to the 2008-09 school year, student surveys and other federal documents.

“There is just such a lack of respect for women there,” said Chelsea Tapper, 24, a 2014 graduate who is a third mate for a crude-oil tanker company and decided to speak out about her experiences. “Once we stepped through those gates we were no longer human. We were just objects for them to conquer.”

How institutions of higher education, both military and civilian, respond to and resolve claims of sexual assault and harassment has become a defining issue in recent years.

The reports about sexual misconduct at the academy compelled Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose agency oversees the school, to suspend the Sea Year in June. Later that month, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the institution’s accrediting agency, found the school lacking in five of 14 quality benchmarks — including leadership and the need to “build a climate of mutual trust and respect” on campus and during the Sea Year — and placed it on warning, meaning its accreditation was in peril.

USMMA, in a June annual report to the Transportation Department, acknowledged, “We are saying that there is a preponderous (sic) of evidence that many midshipmen are likely to be subjected to sexual harassment in the coming months and some will be assaulted if the status quo continues.”

Tapper said she was the target of repeated sexual harassment and unwanted advances by an upperclassman on the Kings Point campus. The incidents occurred in public settings, she said, such as on a bus filled with other student athletes — she played softball and ran cross-country — and in the academy’s workout room during training. At a social gathering, her alleged perpetrator poured a cup of beer over her head after learning she had tried to file a report, she said.

She said little was done when she informed academy officials about the behavior. The written account Tapper was asked to provide to a student serving as a school response coordinator was given to the alleged perpetrator, she said, eroding her belief in the process, and she did not pursue it further. Within USMMA’s culture, alerting outside law enforcement was frowned upon, she said.

‘People change over Sea Year’

A current student, who requested that she not be identified because of potential repercussions at the academy and on her career, described the Sea Year as leaving an indelible scar. The program sends students, during portions of their sophomore and junior years, to train on federal and/or commercial ships at sea and in ports around the world.

“People change over Sea Year and all your values just disappear. You go out to sea and you think all of these things are acceptable. Racist remarks, sexist comments, you know, the use of prostitutes and excessive drinking — it becomes the norm. That experience, along with this [academic] stress, just changes people.

“You can see a plebe [first-year student] come in, the nicest, sweetest kid who got into a service academy,” she said. “Three years later, you don’t even recognize him. And that guy is just angry. They say all the time that they’re just angry.”

The problems at USMMA have endured despite attempts at reforms mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009. Congress each year passes a version of the law, which authorizes appropriations for military activities, military construction and other purposes. The reform efforts were detailed in seven annual U.S. Transportation Department reports and in other documents required by that law, including biennial surveys of students.

In those pages also are responses from students — women and men — who voluntarily took part in focus groups conducted by a government-contracted firm, talking confidentially of the academy’s male-dominated culture, “victim-blaming” and sexist attitudes.

The public records show that USMMA — which now has 929 students, about 18 percent of whom are women — received only 14 official reports of sexual assault from 2008 through 2015. Yet, during the 2011-12 school year alone, about 17 women and eight men said in a confidential survey that they had been sexually assaulted.

Alumnus James Patrick O’Connor, president of USMMA’s Class of 2012, said the academy’s culture discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward. He said he knew of six cases of women who were sexually assaulted on campus and during the Sea Year. He is unsure whether any of them reported the incidents to academy officials.

“They are already not taken seriously in so many ways at Kings Point, so how can you expect them to push the envelope on this?” said the 26-year-old, who works as a marine engineer on a vessel docked in Long Beach, California.

O’Connor said he was morally conflicted during his own Sea Year, when the crew of his ship, docked in a port in China, took him and another midshipman to a brothel.

“I suppose I could’ve said something, but there I was, a 19-year-old in a foreign country, not knowing the language and relying on these people for everything, including my safety,” he said.

Concerns about the Sea Year date to the earliest reports submitted to then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who served from January 2009 to July 2013.

Authors of the 2009-10 report wrote that “the most frequent sources of harassment were ships’ crew on commercial vessels during the midshipmen’s sea year (135 incidents) and other midshipmen (133 incidents).”

An estimated 10 women were assaulted during the 2011-12 Sea Year, according to the survey of that school year in which students reported anonymously. In the 2013-14 school year, between six and nine women were assaulted during the Sea Year or the summer training program, according to that year’s reports. About 37 percent of sexual assault incidents against women reported anonymously during the 2013-14 year occurred during the Sea Year, the survey found.

Survey administrators in the 2012-13 report warned of the training program’s challenges. “Sea Year is problematic because the academy has no jurisdiction over shipping company employees, so the academy depends upon the individual shipping companies to enforce their own policies and procedures while midshipmen are embarked on their vessels,” officials wrote.

Firm hired to look at academy’s climate

The Transportation Department, with renewed questions last year about sexual assault and sexual harassment, in September hired Logistics Management Institute of Virginia to “assess the history, culture and climate of USMMA and the Sea Year Program.”

That group’s 138-page report, made public Jan. 6, said the school continues to struggle with a climate where a “lack of trust and a culture of fear” deters students from alerting authorities when they or others are victims of sexual assault or harassment. It reiterated the need for reforms and recommended that USMMA develop a multiyear plan to achieve “mutual respect and zero tolerance” for sexual assault and harassment.

That day, Foxx authorized full reinstatement of the Sea Year with a phased-in approach recommended in the Logistics Management Institute study. In a letter to the USMMA campus community, he wrote, “The Sea Year is of vital importance to each of you. However, it has been made clear to me that, absent greater vigilance, we have been putting too many young people at risk. It has never been our intention to stop your progress; to the contrary, we want all of you to make it.”

Transportation Department spokeswoman Namrata Kolachalam, asked to respond to Newsday’s findings, said in an email, “The U.S. DOT and the USMMA have worked for a number of years to address the sexual assault and sexual harassment incidents on campus. These efforts, while important, were not enough to seriously reduce these unacceptable behaviors, and so we brought in Logistics Management Institute (LMI) to conduct a cultural assessment of the campus. The department will have more to say in mid-January about the path forward for creating needed changes at the USMMA.”

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, signed Dec. 23 by President Barack Obama, includes several initiatives to improve prevention training and the reporting process and resolution of such incidents. Some of the reforms codify those put in place after the 2009 law.

The Logistics Management Institute study cost $363,000, and the government contractor that has conducted surveys of midshipmen has been paid nearly $233,000 from 2013 through September of last year.

A unique institution

The academy is distinct from other institutions of higher education on Long Island. Students, called midshipmen on campus and cadets during the Sea Year, live in barracks, wear uniforms and march with rifles as part of regimental units — a hierarchical military culture steeped in traditions of duty and honor.

USMMA also is unlike the military service academies for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, which answer to the U.S. Defense Department. It comes under jurisdiction of the Transportation Department and the agency’s U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD.

The school, surrounded by gates and hedges on an 82-acre waterfront campus overlooking Long Island Sound, provides a tuition-free education to students who often go on to work in the maritime industry and can serve as officers on commercial vessels during wartime or in national security emergencies.

USMMA graduates must fulfill a service obligation: five years of active duty in a branch of the U.S. armed services, or five years in the maritime industry along with eight years in a U.S. military reserve unit. About one-third enter the armed services as commissioned officers. In 1974, it was the first of the service academies to admit women.

Foxx’s suspension of the Sea Year in June rocked the campus and brought denunciations from the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, parents of some students and the maritime industry. He allowed partial resumption of the training program in July, with students able to train on federal ships — but not commercial vessels.

James Tobin, president of the 15,000-member alumni association, initially called the suspension “misguided” and repeatedly called for the Sea Year’s full reinstatement.

“On this radical decision, we are in honest, frank disagreement with the academy leadership,” he said in public testimony at a meeting of USMMA’s Board of Visitors, a congressional advisory panel, held Nov. 14 on the campus. “We believe before making such a disruptive move — a move with such unforeseeable, far-reaching consequences — decision-makers would have benefited from an open discussion of facts and perspectives.”

Tobin declined requests for an interview. When the Logistics Management Institute study was released, he said it was “first and foremost an indictment of the academy’s leadership, whose efforts to date to address sexual misconduct fall woefully short when compared to the work of their peers at academies and colleges around the country, who are facing similar issues.”

The alumni association launched its own sexual assault and sexual harassment task force that commissioned a separate study of USMMA’s culture both on campus and at sea.

The consultant’s preliminary report, released on Dec. 8, found that “the culture at Kings Point is neither tolerant of nor conducive to sexual assault;” there was “no evidence that Sea Year is unsafe, nor does it indicate a negative campus culture stemming from students’ year at sea;” and there was “no evidence that serving on commercial vessels puts the midshipmen at unnecessary, heightened risk.”

The USMMA National Parents Association, an affiliate of the alumni association, also advocated for full restoration of the Sea Year.

Susan Wagner McKenna, vice-chair of that group, testified at the Nov. 14 meeting that those working on commercial vessels “are people who have families, they have mortgages. This is their livelihood. . . . They come to work, they do their job.

“This isn’t Jack Sparrow and a black crow with a bunch of crazy people running around looking to rape and pillage women,” McKenna said, referring to the character in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series.

McKenna’s sister, Nancy Wagner, was among the first women admitted into the academy in 1974; her daughter, Kate McKenna, graduated in 2014 and is working in the maritime industry. Neither ever confronted sexual misconduct while at sea, she said.

Criticized by academic accreditor

Amid the controversy, Foxx, Maritime Administration officials and USMMA’s leaders also were contending with the academy’s accreditation status.

Representatives from the Middle States Commission had visited the campus in April as part of the process of reaccreditation, which occurs every 10 years.

The review team, in its 35-page report to the commission, called the reports of sexual assault and harassment “undeniable and disturbing” and wrote: “Perhaps most disturbing is that the victims do not report the incidents, and the only evidence of its pervasiveness is obtained through confidential surveys. While the trend is alarming, and there is clear evidence of the intention to implement corrective action, the initiatives in place have been inconsistent, not fully supported, and ineffective.”

On June 23, the commission placed USMMA’s accreditation on warning — the first time such an action ever had been taken against a federal service academy by its independent, nongovernmental academic accreditor. USMMA’s administrators face a March 1 deadline to show the commission that the school has the leadership to secure its future.

Time of increased funding

The academy’s issues have occurred during a period of record funding during the Obama administration. Its 2016 budget, covering both operating and capital expenses, was more than $82 million — an increase of $21 million since Obama took office in 2009. It has seen an injection of $123 million in capital funds alone since 2010 to renovate barracks and repair or replace deteriorating infrastructure, including reconstruction of the 825-foot-long Mallory Pier.

The Transportation Department’s November 2011 annual report called on the academy to “allocate additional staff resources dedicated to sexual harassment and sexual assault awareness, prevention, response, and training.” That document included the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years and was among the succession of annual reports required by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

The problem was recognized at the highest levels of the federal government. Transportation Department reports published in 2011 and 2014 brought reaction from LaHood and Foxx, respectively. Each of them cited the findings about sexual assault and sexual harassment as “deeply disturbing.” Foxx wrote that DOT “will implement whatever measures are necessary to put a stop to this egregious behavior and ensure that all midshipmen have a safe and supportive environment, both on campus and during their Sea Year training.”

Denise Krepp, a former chief counsel of MARAD, said in an interview that she was informed of incidents of sexual assault by a “whistleblower” in 2011 and that she requested an investigation of the school’s handling of sexual misconduct by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, the agency’s investigative arm. Krepp, who left the department in 2012, testified about those claims before a federal panel in January 2014.

“I found that there was an environment where young girls were being treated very poorly, that the young girls did not trust leadership at the school to protect them, and that they . . . wouldn’t report it because they feared retaliation from the school and their fellow students,” Krepp told Newsday.

The transportation agency’s annual reports show few official investigations of cases or disciplinary actions.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, described the reporting process as “sketchy” in the years before he took office in 2012.

“The first stumbling block is we were starting from not too much above ground zero, in terms of starting out and moving forward,” Helis said in an interview with Newsday. There was no administrator in charge of dealing with sexual assault and harassment complaints or prevention training, though the campus’ chaplain often took complaints, he said.

Early in 2012, the academy hired its first sexual assault response coordinator, a full-time position. That post has been filled except for a period of about seven months in 2014, and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program’s budget this year will be $584,000-plus — more than double the $270,000 in 2016, records show.

The academy also established the three categories of incident reporting currently in use: unrestricted, which launches an investigation; restricted, which provides victim assistance but does not trigger a criminal or administrative investigation; and anonymous, in which any member of the academy community can share concerns about sexual violence from an on-campus network computer.

Helis said the school’s first public safety coordinator, trained in trauma-based investigations, was hired in April 2012.

Federal officials handle criminal complaints

Because USMMA is a federally governed entity, local authorities do not have enforcement jurisdiction over the Kings Point campus other than the public roads.

The inspector general’s office of the Transportation Department “has responsibility for criminal investigations,” Helis said.

In the event of a complaint of criminal activity, campus officials would contact the inspector general’s office, which has a New York City office, and officials there would “normally contact the FBI as well,” the superintendent said. The school’s director of public security would participate in the investigation, while the inspector general’s office would lead it.

A spokesman for the Nassau County district attorney’s office said the “FBI is the leading criminal investigating agency for sexual assault incidents occurring in the academy.”

Current female students, in interviews, told Newsday that security on the campus is an issue. A nighttime bunk check, starting at 11 p.m., is part of academy protocol; students often leave their doors unlocked so they don’t violate the rule, they said, even if they want to fall asleep earlier.

MARAD spokeswoman Kim Strong, in a statement, said the process of updating the locks of interior rooms in all barracks was completed in 2015. Rooms are equipped with a lock-and-key system, which was an update from a former electronic keypad system, and barracks’ exterior doors use a card-swipe system for access.

2014 inspector general’s report

The Transportation Department’s inspector general in October 2014 criticized the academy for bureaucratic mismanagement and found that none of nine goals outlined by USMMA in 2011 as part of a plan to reduce sexual misconduct was achieved.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said the 2014 inspector general’s report was the first time that any members of the Board of Visitors realized more action was needed at the academy regarding sexual violence and misconduct, beyond requirements of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act. King, a board member for 20 years, completed his term as chairman on Dec. 31.

King said in an interview that he could not recall hearing anything about sexual misconduct at the academy between 2009 and 2014. Many on the Board of Visitors assumed progress was being made, he said.

King said he was shocked when he heard some of the data from the Transportation Department’s annual reports at a Board of Visitors meeting held in Washington in July. He scheduled the Nov. 14 meeting on campus to further understand the findings and the issue.

“There are always going to be human failings in society, but you want to be sure that there is progress in addressing those failings,” King said. “In this case, not enough progress was being made.”

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act dedicates a section to maritime safety, including measures to ensure that key positions at USMMA relating to sexual assault are continuously filled; 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 legislation also requires the inspector general’s office to audit the academy’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct by March 2018.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has advocated for changes in sexual assault policies in the military, announced in October that she will introduce legislation to reform the system at Kings Point. She has said the decision to try cases of alleged sexual misconduct in the armed forces should be removed from the military chain of command and given to an independent prosecutor. Her office first learned of a problem at USMMA in July, a spokesman said.

“These reports are very disturbing, and they make it clear that we have to change the way sexual assault and sexual harassment crimes are handled at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” Gillibrand said in a statement, referring to the Transportation Department reports and other federal documents. “The price of attending our country’s best school to start a maritime career and support our military at sea cannot be sexual assault and harassment.”

Students cite need for better training

Midshipmen, both in anonymous surveys and focus groups done for the Transportation Department reports, touched on the academy’s need to improve students’ training about recognizing sexual misconduct.

More than half of women described student training as “slightly” or “not at all” effective in surveys conducted of the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years. Those findings led USMMA administrators to conclude that the school’s training “was not perceived as meeting the expectations of academy women that it would actually reduce” incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Both men and women spoke of sexist attitudes on campus, the effects of the Sea Year and pressure to adapt to the campus’ male-dominated culture.

“Some of that I think is a learned behavior from sea,” one female midshipman said, according to focus group responses from 2013. “The guys who are really nice guys coming in as freshman (sic) and they go out to sea and ‘What happened to you?’ They are completely different people.”

A male midshipman, quoted in the report, explained the challenge of returning to campus after the Sea Year experience.

“Part of the hard part is we go out to sea for four months and then eight months, and what’s acceptable on a ship with 22 guys in an engine room when you drop a wrench on your foot is completely different than what’s acceptable in the classroom or the barracks,” he said. “So to come back from sea and then to have to all of a sudden put a filter on is not easy.”

One female midshipman wrote: “I can tell you almost every single day since I’ve been here there’s a sexist remark.”

Anonymous vs. official reports of sexual assault

Government reports that document sexual assault and sexual harassment at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy show the challenge of arriving at an accurate assessment of the problem.

The reports to the U.S. Transportation Department, which has jurisdiction over the school, show that the number of midshipmen who said they had been sexually assaulted consistently exceeded the number of complaints officially filed with the academy.

The reports were required by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

  • In the 2009-10 school year, the first anonymous survey of students after the law took effect found 11 incidents of actual or attempted rape or assault. No official reports of sexual assault were filed that year. The school handled two complaints of alleged sexual harassment on a commercial vessel.
  • In the 2011-12 survey, 25 midshipman anonymously reported being sexually assaulted. No official reports of sexual assault were filed that year.
  • The 2013-14 survey used weighted estimates, based on anonymous student responses, to give ranges. Nineteen to 28 women and eight to 24 men reported they were sexually assaulted. That year, the school had three official reports of sexual assault.
  • Reports for years in which anonymous surveys of midshipmen were not done showed the academy received six official reports of sexual assault in 2010-11, four in 2012-13 and one in 2014-15.

The sexual-assault data in two of the reports that had midshipmen’s anonymous responses included references to incidents during the Sea Year.

  • The 2009-10 report said “the most frequent sources of harassment were ships’ crew on commercial vessels during the midshipmen’s Sea Year (135 incidents) and other midshipmen (133 incidents).”
  • The 2012-13 report said, “Sea Year is problematic because the academy has no jurisdiction over shipping company employees, so the academy depends upon the individual shipping company to enforce their own policies and procedures while midshipmen are embarked on their vessels.”

Scott Eidler

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