Congress acts to stem marine academy sex abuse

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Congress acts to stem marine academy sex abuse

Federal legislators last Thursday approved steps to address sexual assault and harassment at the Kings Point-based United States Merchant Marine Academy.
The actions, which are part of the National Defense Authorization Act, aim to offer midshipmen at the academy more support and resources, as well as increase congressional oversight on sexual assault and harassment-related incidents.
“Enacting these reforms will be a step toward a needed culture change at agencies where women and men often work together in close quarters for long periods at sea,” said U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
In July, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education issued a warning to the academy about its accreditation status, citing the school’s failure to meet five of the agency’s 14 standards.
The academy’s Sea Year, when midshipmen spend an academic year aboard a merchant marine vessel, was scrutinized by the accrediting agency.
The Middle States report said the marine academy needs to take steps “to build a climate of mutual trust and respect on campus and during the Sea Year.”
Academy officials suspended the program on June 15 to hold student training about bullying and sexual harassment, but in July the program was partly reinstated to allow midshipmen to serve Sea Year on federal ships, but not on commercial vessels.
In August, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the academy, announced it would create a team of independent experts to review campus culture and the institution’s Sea Year.
The steps in the National Defense Authorization Act include requiring midshipmen to attend sexual assault and harassment prevention and response training sessions twice a year. The initial training session must be attended within seven days of arrival at the academy.
The academy will be required to hire at least one full-time sexual assault response coordinator, according to the bill, and Anthony Foxx, the U.S. secretary of transportation, can assign additional full-time or part-time response coordinators as he sees fit.
No more than 21 days after the enactment of the bill, the academy must form a “working group” to discuss and examine methods of sexual assault and harassment prevention and response.
By March 31, 2018, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation must submit to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure a report on the effectiveness of sexual assault and harassment prevention and response program at the academy.
“The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy must follow a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual assault and sexual harassment,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, who is a member of the academy’s Board of Visitors. “I strongly support the work of outside experts so we can make certain that the academy makes any necessary reforms. It is vitally important to ensure that cadets receive the quality of education befitting an academy of the United State Military in a safe, secure environment.”
A 2014-15 survey conducted by the Merchant Marine Academy found that 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men at the school said they had been sexually harassed and 17 percent of female midshipmen said they had been sexually assaulted.
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, or AAF, announced in October the creation of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment, a seven-member group of representatives from the maritime industry and different maritime academies.
The task force released a report of its findings last Thursday, which stated it found “no evidence of a culture that condones sexual misconduct, nor a climate that facilitates precursory behaviors such as sexual coercion, sexual harassment, hazing or bullying.”
Midshipmen are not worried about their personal safety while serving on commercial vessels during Sea Year, the report said. It noted that both male and female midshipmen were surveyed.
The AAF report stated that midshipmen were unsure of what behaviors are categorized as sexual harassment, specifically when it came to verbal conduct.
“Although midshipmen were clear about the definition of sexual assault, they were unable to give an equally consistent definition of sexual harassment,” the report said.
The report also said that incidents of sexual assault and harassment have gone unreported because the “recipient” did not view the comments as sexual harassment or because midshipmen handle incidents internally and confronted the man or woman accused of sexual assault or harassment.
“Some midshipmen theorized that suspension of Sea Year has created a disincentive to report an incident out of concern that it would be used as a pretext to extend the suspension,” the report states.

By Joe Nikic

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