United States Merchant Marine Academy Chapel and Memorial Bell. Image: fisheradam13/Shutterstock

Senators Introduce Bill to Safeguard U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Midshipmen from Sexual Misconduct

Mike Schuler
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November 8, 2021

U.S Senator’s Roger Wicker (R-MS), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have introduced a bill aimed at providing additional safeguards for midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), currently embroiled in the ongoing Midshipman X sexual assault and sexual harassment scandal.

The legislation comes as USMMA faces fallout after an online post by an unidentified female midshipman at the federal service describing how she was raped by an engineer on a Maersk Line, Limited ship during her Sea Year training. Her story also painted a picture of a more widespread problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Sea Year program and cadet shipping in general, while also prompting others to share their own stories.

The Department of Transportation has since suspended Sea Year training for the next cycle – the second suspension of the program in five years. Meanwhile, a group of six congressional leaders have also called for the resignation of USMMA Superintendent VADM Jack Buono.

A statement from the Senators said the Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act would strengthen Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) prevention, response, investigation, and accountability in the maritime industry and provide additional safeguards for the USMMA midshipmen.

“In light of the troubling allegations that recently surfaced at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, it is imperative that we do all that we can to protect students who have chosen the path of service and ensure they are able to continue their important work,” said Senator Collins, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. “This legislation would strengthen sexual violence prevention, response, investigation, and accountability measures to improve cadets’ safety. Congress must remain committed to reducing the instances of sexual assault at our service academies and providing appropriate care for survivors.”

“Sexual harassment, sexual assault and violence continue to plague both the maritime industry and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Congress must act to address this scourge and protect our mariners. The bipartisan Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act would strengthen measures relating to prevention, training, investigation and accountability and would give mariners and midshipmen more confidence in their safety.”

Senator Wicker has also taken issue with the DOT’s move to suspend Sea Year training and is calling for the program’s reinstatement by next month.

“The Department of Transportation’s knee-jerk reaction to pause Sea Year is not an effective way to prevent future incidents of abuse and harassment,” said Senator Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “It will have a negative impact on the professional development of current Midshipmen and increase pressure and scrutiny on survivors of assault. This legislation would protect our mariners from sexual misconduct and hold accountable those who commit these abhorrent behaviors. If these prudent measures are adopted quickly, the Sea Year can be resumed by December.”

Details shared about the bill are below.

The Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act would:

Provide Accountability for SASH Offenders:

  • Give the Coast Guard authority to suspend or revoke a mariner’s license if the individual is found to have committed sexual harassment or sexual assault;
  • Include commission of sexual assault as an independent and explicit ground for suspension or revocation, and add sexual harassment as a new form of misconduct on which a license could be lost; and
  • Require the Maritime Administration and the Coast Guard to assess the applicability of the DoD’s Catch a Serial Offender program to the merchant marine, and, if so, how such a program would be implemented.   

Track incidents of SASH and collecting student feedback:

  • Establish a sexual assault and sexual harassment database at the USMMA to track reports of harassment and assault in a systematic way; and
  • Require exit interviews from students after Sea Year and include information from these exit interviews into the database.

Provide information, training, and resources to students:

  • Require the USMMA to create a training program specifically designed for Midshipmen going onboard ships, which would focus on the full continuum of SASH in the at-sea environment, including prevention, identification, reporting, and available support;
  • Codify the position of Special Victims Counsel at the USMMA; and
  • Allow the Department of Transportation the authority for direct hire of employees of the SASH office, to prevent unacceptably long gaps in staffing.

Set up a framework to improve the USMMA’s SASH policies and procedures:

  • Establish a Sexual Assault Advisory Council, with members including USMMA Alumni and SASH experts, to provide feedback to the USMMA for improvements on SASH policy and implementation; and
  • Require the USMMA to promulgate a student support plan aimed at improving Midshipmen well-being by improving the climate and sharing available mental health resources at the Academy.

Increase the Diversity of the Maritime Academy and Maritime Workforce:

  • Advance policies to increase diversity in both the USMMA and the maritime workforce; and
  • Codify the Merchant Marine Diversity and Inclusion Task Force under the Committee on the Marine Transportation System.  

Click here to read the bill.

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