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USMMA sex assault, harassment prevention report due March 1

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Plebe candidates stand during

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Plebe candidates stand during the start of their Acceptance Day Ceremony and Parade at the academy in King Point Saturday Aug. 8, 2015. This event marks the official transition of the Class of 2019 from their status as "plebes," and formal acceptance into the Regiment of the Midshipman and U.S. Navy Reserve. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, with its accreditation on warning, must document efforts to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment and correct issues of governance, leadership and other failings by a Wednesday deadline.

Officials at the Kings Point academy must submit a “monitoring report” to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its Philadelphia-based accreditation agency, which placed the school on warning in June for failure to comply with five of 14 accreditation standards.

A team of peer evaluators will schedule an on-campus visit to review the school’s progress and present findings to the commission’s Committee on Follow-up Activities, said Richard Pokrass, director of communications and public relations for Middle States. That committee will provide recommendations to the entire Middle States Commission on June 22, Pokrass said.

Kim Strong, a spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation agency that operates the academy, said in an email that “for this period, the focus of the Middle States evaluation will be on the seven requirements they established.”

USMMA has been roiled by reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in recent years, receiving 18 official complaints between the 2008-09 and 2015-16 school years, public records show.

Former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in June ordered a suspension of the Sea Year, a crucial training program when students work on federal and commercial ships. Earlier this year, an academy consultant’s report described “a lack of trust and a culture of fear” on campus.

Foxx’s order was amended in July to allow students to train on the federal ships, and two weeks ago, students learned they will be able to resume training on some commercial vessels after a new credentialing process and “zero tolerance” policies for sexual assault were implemented.

Middle States chairman George A. Pruitt, in a June 2016 letter to Rear Adm. James Helis, USMMA’s superintendent, laid out the accrediting agency’s expectations, including that steps be taken “to build a climate of mutual trust and respect on campus and during the Sea Year.”

Middle States’ placement of USMMA on warning last year was unprecedented for a federal service academy. The nation’s other four service academies are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Defense Department.

Strong said the Maritime Administration must show its plan to restore budgeting and powers to academy leaders, a requirement for reaccreditation. Academy officials lost those responsibilities in 2009 after an audit from the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited 47 management deficiencies and “numerous instances of improper and questionable sources and uses of funds by the academy and its affiliated organizations.”

Authors of a Middle States review team’s report last spring wrote that “these limitations were expanded as key academy business processes” were removed from USMMA by Congress, including financial management, procurement, and human resource tasks.

That report also stated, “The net effect of this is that the superintendent as the CEO of the institution does not in practice currently have the means, authority and responsibility, assigned or delegated, to enable effective and efficient accomplishment of the academy’s mission.”

Half of USMMA’s budget has been “held” each year while the school was required to submit a spending plan to Congress, Strong said. The school’s budget for the 2016 federal fiscal year, covering operations and capital costs, was $82.5 million.

That requirement was removed in the current continuing resolution, which was passed last year to extend the annual federal budget, and the Maritime Administration has been moving hiring and acquisition authorities back to the academy since last year’s Middle States report, Strong said. However, she added, “we still need removal of language requiring funding to come to the academy through DOT instead of directly to the academy.”

“The restrictions [on budgeting] are not applied to the military academies and can result in substantial delays in getting necessary funding to the USMMA because of the reporting and review requirements,” Strong said.

She added that “the GAO concluded that Superintendent Helis and the new leadership team had addressed all management deficiencies.”

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a member of the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, said in a statement that “no one is questioning the strength of the academy’s academics.”

“It is disappointing that other issues are affecting accreditation,” King said. “The academy must move as quickly as possible to address those issues.”

James Tobin, president of the 15,000-member USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, said in a statement, “With the March 1st deadline fast approaching, we sincerely hope that the administration has done its work and that it will soon update the Kings Point community on its efforts and plans moving forward.”

With Candice Ferrette

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