7 USMMA students won’t graduate amid ongoing investigation

7 USMMA students won’t graduate amid ongoing investigation
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)

Seven members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s men’s soccer team will not be graduating Saturday as they are involved in a federal investigation into alleged sexual misconduct, a congressman said on Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, told Newsday the players were involved in an incident on a bus in September.

Five of the students filed lawsuits on Monday and Tuesday, hoping to be permitted to graduate, court records show.

Court documents for four of the students, Connor Culiver, Dave Burkhardt, Michael Heckmuller and Gavin Yingling, mention an alleged hazing situation involving a freshman in September while the team was on a trip to play the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The complaint says while the team was on the bus 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 the fifth accused player, Brennan Becker, claim he was not on the road trip.

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

Micahel Cassell, an attorney at Hogan & Cassell LLP, who represents four of the students, did not respond to a request to comment.

Ronald W. Meister, of Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, who represents Becker, did not respond to a request to comment.

“I don’t know if they were all physically involved or some of them were witnesses,” King said to Newsday Monday. “It’s something of a sexual nature. I’m not trying to be clever in saying it that way, but it is certainly something involving a sexual nature.”

The investigation is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office. The department oversees the academy.

The academy’s superintendent, Adm. James Helis, suspended the team, according to email he sent to the academic community.

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

King did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

“We understand that the Superintendent of the United States Merchant Marine Academy has exercised his authority to suspend the men’s soccer program pending an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation,” the inspector general’s office said in a statement. “Because our investigation is ongoing, we are unable to provide any further details in accordance with the rules governing sensitive law enforcement information.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, whose district includes the academy and who is also on the Board of Visitors, called the situation “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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