5 USSMA students will walk at graduation, not get diplomas: judge


A federal judge on Thursday ruled that five U.S. Merchant Marine Academy seniors, who are suing the school over the right to graduate, can walk with their class but will not receive diplomas at Saturday’s graduation.

The students, who are members of the men’s soccer team, sued the academy after the superintendent said they could not graduate because they are under federal investigation for an alleged assault of a freshman player on a team bus in September, court records show.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler ruled that the students, Connor Culiver, Dave Burkhardt, Michael Heckmuller and Gavin Yingling and Brennan Becker, can participate in the ceremony but will not receive their certificate of graduation, diploma, Coast Guard license and commissioning documents.

The complaint for Culiver, Burkhardt, Heckmuller and Yingling says while the team was on the bus going to its hotel, consistent with school tradition, “the upperclassman teased the freshman members of the team.”

A freshman then threw a banana at an upperclassman, and some of the upperclassmen threw water at him, which he alleged was urine, the complaint says.

The court documents submitted for Becker claim he was not on the road trip to play the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Becker was not listed in the game’s box score.

Shaun Hogan, an attorney representing Culiver, Burkhardt, Heckmuller and Yingling did not respond to a request to comment.

Ronald W. Meister, of Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, who represents Becker, said “We are pleased the court agreed that the midshipmen can attend their graduation ceremony.”

On June 2, Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, notified the students that they were barred from graduation because of the investigation by the U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General, the agency that oversees the academy.

Helis suspended the entire men’s soccer team last week.

The academy did not respond to a request for comment. The inspector general’s office would not comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, whose district includes the academy and who is also on the Board of Visitors, called the situation on Tuesday “a very serious incident that needs to be investigated to the fullest extent.”

“I’m very concerned about what’s going on over there and we need to get to the bottom of this,” Suozzi said in a statement. “I’ve spoken with Adm. Helis, who says they’re doing a better job of taking action and people are feeling comfortable enough to come forward to report problems of sexual assault. That’s either true, or they’ve done very little to really address this issue and it’s all lip service.”

The investigation follows incidents of bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment that led the academy to shut down its Sea Year last June.

In February, the academy announced that Sea Year, in which midshipmen spend an academic year aboard a merchant vessel, would resume.

Last year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the academy’s accrediting agency, issued a warning to USMMA about its academic accreditation status, citing the school’s failure to meet some of the agency’s 14 standards.

The report highlighted the academy’s noncompliance with its standards on financial planning, leadership, student services and resource allocation. Sea Year was also scrutinized by the agency.

The commission is to decide later this month whether the academy has made adjustments and reforms that allow it to remove the warning.

The academy remains accredited while on warning, which is the least severe penalty used by the accrediting agency.

In May, the inspector general’s office launched an audit to review USMMA’s program on preventing and responding to a case of sexual harassment and assault.

The men’s soccer team, which competes in the Division III Skyline Conference, finished last season with a 13-5-2 record.

The academy’s graduation is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Tomb Field on the Kings Point campus.


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