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US Merchant Marine Academy Faces Serious Sexual Assault Allegation During Cadet’s Sea Year

Mike Schuler
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October 3, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration are taking a serious look into an anonymous online report by a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) cadet who claims she was sexually assaulted during her Sea Year training, while also offering “unwavering support” to the victim and others who have experienced of sexual assault and harassment at the federal service academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

The allegation was posted as an article written by the victim, who identified herself as a female member of the class of 2022 at USMMA, to a whistleblower website which works to expose problems of sexual harassment and assault aboard U.S. commercial vessels, and also shared on social media. The website also contains other allegations we cannot independently verify.

In her post, the anonymous author discloses that she was 19 when she was sexually assaulted while on Sea Year by an older engineer aboard a U.S.-flagged Maersk Line Limited ship after she was pressured into drinking by members of the engineering department. The name of the vessel and anyone involved weren’t disclosed. The article started by also pointing to a broader issue of sexual misconduct against women cadets at USMMA.

“There are more than 50 young, strong, amazing women in my class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy where I am currently in my Senior/1st Class year. I have not spoken to a single one of those women who has told me that she has not been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or degraded at some point during the last 3 years at the Academy or during Sea Year,” the article reads.

Maersk Line Limited, which operates 20 U.S. flag containerships operating in support of the U.S. government, said it is investigating the incident and also initiating a “top to bottom” review of its shipboard policies (MLL’s full statement is at the bottom of this post).

In a letter published Saturday to the Kings Point Community, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg and Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley expressed their support for the victim and said the agencies were moving swiftly to address the issues at the school.

“We write today to express our unwavering support for the individual who has shared her story of a sexual assault that took place during Sea Year. U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), the Maritime Administration (MARAD) and U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) are committed to her safety and welfare, along with that of all midshipmen at USMMA, and we stand ready to provide support to her and to all survivors,” the letter reads.

USMMA is one of five federal service academies where cadets train to serve as officers in the U.S. Merchant Marine, both in the public and private sectors. Part of the curriculum includes Sea Year training, where cadets are required to complete over 300 days at sea working aboard commercial, passenger, or military vessels operating around the world. The school is administered by MARAD, part of the Department of Transportation.

Unfortunately, the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault at USMMA is nothing new. In June 2016, then Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ordered a “Sea Year Stand Down” at USMMA following supposed incidents of sexual harassment and assault, hazing, bullying, coercion, and retaliation involving cadets during their time at sea. In response, the Department of Transportation hired its own private consultant for an independent assessment the problem.

It wasn’t until March 2017 that USMMA announced that it would resume Sea Year training, beginning on three commercial carriers – Crowley Maritime Corporation, Maersk Line Limited, and American Presidents Line (APL) – following the implementation of comprehensive new policies that ensured that the academy’s standards were being upheld. The new policies included items like a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and sexual harassment, vetted mentors, regular crew training, and no “fraternization” between crew and Midshipmen. At the time, USMMA said the requirements would be reviewed after six months and then annually moving forward.

In another incident, the Department of Justice in 2020 actually agreed to $1.4 million settlement with a former member of the USMMA men’s soccer team who alleged he was sexually assaulted and hazed at the academy in 2016. In settling the matter, both the MARAD and Department of Transportation admitted to no wrongdoing, but the case marked the first time a sexual assault victim had recovered damages at any of the federal service academies.

As for this newly publicized incident, the Department of Transportation’s next moves, and any plans or changes to the Sea Year program, are not immediately clear.

“As we determine the appropriate steps required to increase and ensure the safety of midshipmen, we pledge to listen to and work closely with the entire Kings Point community. We especially on want our students to know that we value their voices and want to make sure they are part of any decisions that could potentially affect our Sea Year training program,” the DOTs letter reads.

“To the entire Kings Point community, thank you for remaining a source of strength for our shipmates. We have heard from many of you and know that you have questions and concerns. On behalf of Secretary Buttigieg and the entire Department, we are committed to moving swiftly and resolutely to address sexual assault and harassment, protect and support survivors, and fulfill our deep commitment to the vital work of USMMA.”

Maersk Line Limited’s has released its own statement, which is posted in full below:

“On Tuesday, September 28th, Maersk Line, Limited (MLL) was made aware of an anonymous posting on the internet, alleging a sexual assault committed against a U.S. Merchant Marine cadet on an MLL vessel.

Although this posting did not identify the victim, the particular vessel or the involved crewmembers, it provided sufficient detail for MLL to conclude that the company was not made aware of this incident at any time prior to this posting, whether through the company’s notification procedures under its Anti-Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment Policy; through U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) or other government officials, or in any other capacity.

The allegations in the posting are very disturbing, and MLL has initiated an investigation in an attempt to identify the vessel and the personnel involved, as well as the relevant facts surrounding the alleged incident. MLL has a strict and explicit zero tolerance policy for assault, harassment or discrimination of any kind, and if the allegations in the posting are confirmed, MLL will ensure there is full accountability. The safety and security of our mariners, including cadets, is of primary importance to MLL, and it is imperative that all mariners are aware of, and are able to utilize, available tools for reporting inappropriate conduct on board our vessels.

As a result, MLL is also initiating a top to bottom review of our current shipboard policies, to include the Anti-Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment Policy, to ensure the reporting procedures are clear and effective. We will also engage the Maritime Administration, USMMA, USCG, our mariner workforce and other stakeholders within the maritime industry to improve collective efforts, starting with victim support, on addressing Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment issues.”

Update: Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Long Island, Queens) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) released the following statement on Tuesday, October 5, 2021:

“The recent allegation regarding the sexual assault of a female cadet during Sea Year is deeply disturbing and demands an immediate investigation. Aspiring cadets at the US Merchant Marine Academy should be able to focus on getting the valuable hands-on skills and training that Sea Year provides them, without fear of sexual harassment, assault, and violence.

In 2017, we worked relentlessly to ensure that major provisions of the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act were signed into law – legislation that provided additional resources to make Sea Year safer, address sexual assault, and ensure that Academy staff have appropriate training and resources to respond to and prevent sexual assault on campus and at sea.

We must ensure that incidents of sexual harassment and assault are reported and prioritized and that every single cadet feels safe whether on campus or at sea. We will continue to work closely with the Merchant Marine Academy to put systems in place to ensure timely and thorough reporting.”

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