Suozzi, Gillibrand introduce legislation to address sexual assault at Merchant Marine Academy

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U.S. Merchant Marine Academy students march away from a Fleet Week ceremony. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi introduced legislation in their respective bodies to give the United States Merchant Marine Academy more resources to counter sexual assault and harassment on Thursday, while also forcing the school to comply with gender equality laws.

The legislation, known as the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act, aims to give students more means to report and prevent sexual harassment.

It would also remove USMMA’s exemption from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal gender equity law that applies to all American colleges where students can receive federal aid.

Gillibrand commended academy Superintendent James Helis’ plans to address issues at the Academy, but said this bill would put much of it into law.

“While I applaud Superintendent Helis’ recent publication of a plan to address the long-standing issues at USMMA, there is no enforcement mechanism if the academy does not follow the plan and there is no guarantee that future Academy leadership will take this problem seriously,” Gillibrand said.

According to the USMMA’s most recent survey of campus midshipmen, 19.5 percent of women and 0.8 percent of men there said they had been sexually assaulted during the 2015-2016 academic year – but only four cases were reported to Merchant Marine Academy officials. The same survey also showed that 73 percent of the assaults occurred on campus.

“We need to ensure the Academy remains the premiere institution of maritime education in America, and that starts with making every single student feel safe,” Suozzi said.

The legislation comes at a time of somewhat rough seas for USMMA.

Most recently, several members of the school soccer team were barred from graduating due to an ongoing federal investigation regarding alleged sexual misconduct.

The school is also still under warning by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the Academy’s accrediting agency. The school, however, is now in compliance when it comes to institutional resources, leadership and governance, administration and student support service requirements.

At the moment, the agency said there is still insufficient evidence that the school is complying with two of the commission’s 15 standards. This means the school’s accreditation is still in jeopardy.

The bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide more training, training materials and resources for sexual assault prevention and response. The department would also train Inspector General agents who investigate sexual assault cases.

The bill requires the USMMA to create plans to prevent retaliation for reporting sexual assault and train staff to handle complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

It would also designate a sexual assault response coordinator. Midshipmen could disclose incidents of sexual harassment and assault to them, as well as receive information about reporting and accessing services at USMMA and in the community.

Additionally, the bill would create a 24-hour helpline to provide information about resources and support.

The DOT would maintain a direct line with the Academy’s sexual assault response staff, which is outside USMMA’s chain of command.

Under the legislation, midshipmen out at Sea Year or aboard commercial vessels would also be protected. The bill would provide federal funding for communications devices midshipmen could use to report any incidents, authorize the Academy to conduct “spot checks” on commercial vessels and midshipman surveys, and require industries and unions to maintain records of of sexual assault training for all the ships’ crew.

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