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Assaults at sea must be stopped

The United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings

The United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, the industry and their partners also must consider larger reforms.  Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, one of the nation’s five service academies, is a prized Long Island institution, where many graduates work in commercial trade or military supply delivery. They’re primed to be some of the best the region has to offer.

But underneath the pomp and honor and all the Kings Point academy does for its students and the region lurks a troubling situation.

It's been more than five years since alarming news emerged regarding the academy's high rates of sexual assault and harassment. Widespread concern was followed by promises of reform and a temporary suspension of the school's well-known Sea Year program, in which students spend a year on a commercial vessel.

But it seems the school has not yet righted its own ship. In a blog posted to a maritime legal advocacy website, an anonymous senior at the academy accused an engineer in his 60s of raping her two years ago when she was 19, after he and other officers on the ship got her and her sea partner — another student — drunk during her Sea Year.

The details are disturbing, the allegations shocking. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Tom Suozzi called for an investigation; officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and its Maritime Administration promised "zero tolerance."

But we've been down that path before.

An independent investigation that encourages students to come forward is warranted. But the academy, the industry and their partners also must consider larger reforms.

Start with better regulation, oversight and accountability. Suozzi calls the school "an orphan," since its jurisdiction and regulations are different from other academies. It falls under the U.S. DOT, so Secretary Pete Buttigieg should take the lead, in partnership with school Superintendent Vice Admiral Jack Buono.

Since merchant mariners hold U.S. Coast Guard licenses, the Coast Guard is responsible for investigating incidents and enforcing penalties. To protect students, Coast Guard officials must focus on the issue and show the industry there are consequences.

Another complication: The academy doesn't follow the Uniform Code of Military Justice like other academies and also isn't subject to Title IX, the federal civil rights law regarding sex-based discrimination in educational settings. Suozzi's legislation to link the school to Title IX never moved forward. It should.

To change a deeply rooted culture and long-standing programs, federal, school and industry officials, plus students and merchant mariners must come aboard. Nothing should be off the table, including reforms to Sea Year. A mix of training ships and commercial vessels, shorter times at sea, and ports that are closer together — measures used by similar schools — could help. Also critical: improving student and merchant marine training and finding new ways to encourage students to report troubling behavior and unsafe situations.

Then, perhaps, the academy's midshipmen can enjoy all the academy offers — and smooth sailing to get there.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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