USMMA Sea Year Training to Resume with Mandatory Safety Standards to Protect Cadets Against Sexual Assault and Harassment

Mike Schuler
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December 16, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) are planning to reinstate Sea Year training for Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen with new policies and procedures in place to protect against sexual assault and sexual harassment.

USMMA’s Sea Year training program, which was temporarily paused in November amid reports of sexual assault, is panned to resume December 22nd with the new standards and policies in place. The DOT said the six State Maritime Academies have confirmed their support for these standards.

Sea Year training typically consists of a sailing period during a cadet’s sophomore year and a longer sailing period during a cadet’s junior year, enabling cadets to obtain the training days at sea necessary to become eligible for a U.S. Coast Guard merchant officer license examination.

Since the announcement of the pause last month, DOT, MARAD, and USMMA have conducted a detailed review of both the existing Sea Year requirements for commercial carriers as well as the policies and procedures in place at USMMA. They also sought recommendations regarding actions to strengthen safety at sea for cadets from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry, labor, advocacy groups working to combat sexual assault and harassment, Congress, and Federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as USMMA midshipmen and alumni.

“The plan we are launching today represents the collective commitment of DOT, MARAD, USMMA, and the six State Maritime Academies to strengthen safety for cadets aboard commercial vessels, and to support an inclusive culture that prioritizes preventing sexual assault and harassment and supporting survivors,” said Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley. “The plan is an initial step, and all parties are committed to continuing to review this program frequently, and to make improvements whenever needed to ensure the safety and success of cadets.”

The latest review of USMMA’s Sea Year training program comes after an anonymous essay posted online by a female Midshipmen (who has become known as “Midshipmen X’) alleging she was raped by a supervisor during her Sea Year training on a U.S.-flagged Maersk Line, Limited ship in the Middle East, prompting investigations by both the government and Maersk itself, who has suspended five officers pending the outcome of their investigation. In her essay, she also pointed a more widespread problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment not only in Sea Year training, but cadet shipping in general. Her coming forward has since prompted others to do the same with their own stories. Even members of Congress have come forward condemning the maritime industry for not doing more to protect cadets and victims, while a group of Senators has also introduced a bill to help safeguard USMMA midshipmen while at sea.

Since the temporary pause, midshipmen at USMMA have urged that the program should be reinstated as it is critical to their training and “readiness”, while also offering support to USMMA leadership including Superintendent Vice Admiral Jack Buono.

“Safety at sea requires teamwork both aboard vessels and between the vessel and shoreside management. Workplace climates which enable sexual offenses erode trust and teamwork and put mariners’ lives at risk,” said Rear Admiral John Mauger, Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy. “Sexual assault is a crime. When they happen aboard a U.S. vessel it must be reported to the Coast Guard. Coast Guard investigators will respond, and we will hold offenders accountable.”

In Wednesday’s announcement about reinstating Sea Year, DOT and MARAD have released two documents:

  • The Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture (EMBARC) program, administered by MARAD, which enumerates more than 30 new safety measures that commercial carriers will be required to meet before they can be enrolled in the EMBARC program and approved to carry cadets. The EMBARC program?also sets forth a process and protocols for ensuring continuous review and improvement.
  • The second document enumerates new policies and procedures that will be implemented at USMMA to support implementation of the EMBARC program and to increase the support provided to cadets while they are at sea. Among other new policies and procedures, USMMA will provide additional pre-Sea Year training and a satellite phone that enables cadets to have voice communication with family and friends as well as Academy personnel and other support resources while embarked at sea. USMMA has also recently implemented a new amnesty policy that ensures that survivors who report sexual assault, as well as intervening bystanders and witnesses, will not be subject to discipline for a violation of the alcohol or drug use policy occurring at or near the time of the commission of the assault.

“We fully support the Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) Prevention Mandatory Minimum Standards articulated in the Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture (EMBARC standards) for U.S. flag Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) vessels engaged in international trade,” stated RADM Bill Brennan, chairman of the Consortium of State Maritime Academies. “We believe these standards will help ensure a safe and healthy work environment for our cadets onboard these vessels.”

The pause of Sea Year training in November follows another, longer pause (aka stand down) of the program in 2016-2017 in response to reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault, hazing, bullying, coercion, and retaliation involving Midshipmen during their time at sea.

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