Gillibrand proposes U.S. Merchant Marine Academy fixes

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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced proposals on Tuesday aimed at tackling issues of sexual misconduct at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point.
Gillibrand’s proposal, which she introduced at a news conference at the academy, includes creating more resources for midshipmen at the academy to report instances of sexual abuse and harassment, giving midshipmen satellite phones while at sea to report sexual misconduct and subjecting the academy to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender.
“This scourge of sexual violence and harassment demands immediate action,” she said. “Working with midshipmen, school officials and sexual assault prevention experts, I’ve put together a plan that I will introduce as legislation in the Senate to help end this crisis at the academy and protect our midshipmen on campus and at sea.”
According to Gillibrand’s office, the bill would “empower” the Department of Transportation inspector general by providing the training necessary to properly investigate reports of sexual assault.
The announcement comes two weeks after the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, or AAF, formed 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.
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 on acceptable conduct in regard to 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 announced it would create a team of independent experts to review both campus culture and the institution’s Sea Year.
Citing a 2014-15 marine academy survey that found 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 were sexually assaulted, Gillibrand said action needed to be taken.
“The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the premier school for midshipmen to start careers supporting the military and on commercial carriers at sea — to become the best mariners in the world — so to have more than six out of 10 female midshipmen and more than one out of 10 male midshipmen say they were sexually harassed in a year is completely unacceptable,” she said. “To have 17 percent of female midshipmen being sexually assaulted is outrageous.”
Gillibrand’s proposal also includes conducting unannounced “spot checks” on commercial vessels and removing from the vessel any midshipmen  accused of  sexual misconduct, as well as offering training about sexual assault  for crew members aboard marine academy vessels.
“The United States Merchant Marine Academy is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment for all midshipmen,” Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the  academy superintendent, said. “Today’s visit with Senator Gillibrand provided USMMA senior staff and midshipmen an opportunity to discuss the world class education provided by the USMMA, some of the challenges we currently face, and our work to build a climate of inclusion for all on campus and at sea.”

By Joe Nikic

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