USMMA made progress in countering sexual misconduct but there’s a long way to go, panel says

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

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Board of Visitors, a congressional panel that oversees the academy, approved of the school’s work to improve the prevention of sexual assaults this week, Newsday reported.

The school has been updating its programs to prevent sexual assaults following revelations of alleged sexual assault in its Sea Year program in 2016. The program was temporarily suspended that year.

A report from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its accrediting agency, had also raised concerns regarding sexual harassment and assault, as well as leadership.

It said that they failed in five of its 14 accrediting standards, including institutional resources, leadership and governance and student support services.

The follow-up report issued last month, however, said the institution now complied with most of these standards.

Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy’s superintendent, told the panel that it has hired people to help deal with sexual misconduct and plans on hiring more officials to work in the school’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, Newsday reported.

The school received a record nine reports of sexual assault in the 2016-2017 school year – more than double the previous year’s four.

“There are early signs that these actions are making a difference,” Newsday reported Sharon van Wyk, chair of the USSMA Advisory Board, as saying at the recent meeting. “Although it is still very difficult and unsettling to hear that there are more victims coming forward, this is a positive sign. It’s consistent with positive change … victims are coming forward with less fear of reprisal.”

Representative Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who sits on the USMMA’s Board of Visitors, said in an interview that it’s good that attention is being paid to sexual misconduct issues at the academy.

“There’s a lot of people looking at the Merchant Marine Academy and are paying attention to it, and I think there are lots of efforts being made to repair some of the damage done over the years,” Suozzi said.

But Suozzi also described himself as “cautiously optimistic” in regards to the academy leadership’s attempts to counter sexual harassment and assault.

“I think there has to be a lot of work done to change the culture of the place [and] to recognize that sexual misconduct cannot be tolerated and that victims have to be respected,” Suozzi said.

According to Newsday, the panel issued a report that suggested establishing performance indicators that can measure progress, continued use of the Defense Department Service Academy Gender Relations surveys, continuing funding and assessment of midshipmen protections and filling vacant positions in its sexual-assault prevent office.


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