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Kings Point to resume Sea Year training on commercial ships

Feb 27, 2017 03:41 PM
Midshipmen 2nd Class Benjamin Sams and Reagan Stromback, students at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, fix their ship’s position using a sextant on USS Benfold last September in the Philippine Sea. The suspension of Sea Year aboard military vessels was lifted in July.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

Midshipmen 2nd Class Benjamin Sams and Reagan Stromback, students at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, fix their ship’s position using a sextant on USS Benfold last September in the Philippine Sea. The suspension of Sea Year aboard military vessels was lifted in July.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, N.Y., has received approval from the federal government to resume its Sea Year training program aboard U.S.-flagged commercial ships.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx authorized the move on Jan. 6, roughly six months after the program was suspended following allegations that midshipmen faced sexual assault, harassment, hazing and bullying on campus and at sea.

In a letter to Rear Adm. James Helis, USMMA’s superintendent, Foxx suggested the program would resume on commercial ships “in a phased, company-by-company manner.” Participating companies also could be subject to new requirements intended to protect students during their time on the water.

“Those who perpetrate or condone these behaviors or look the other way must have no place at the academy, in the U.S. Merchant Marine or our nation’s armed forces. That’s also true of our outside partners,” Foxx wrote in the letter to Helis.

Sea Year, which dates to 1942, is one of four “fundamental pillars” of a USMMA education. It provides midshipmen firsthand experience aboard U.S. military ships and private merchant vessels during their sophomore and junior years. Two classmates are paired and during the program they earn money while traveling around the world and learning about the industry.

The Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration (MarAd) suspended Sea Year in June after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education published a report calling on the academy to “improve the safety and climate of respect” during Sea Year.

“The campus climate and incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been a serious and recognized problem for over 10 years,” the commission’s report said.

The decision to temporarily “stand down” the program was not popular with many of the roughly 1,000 students currently enrolled at the academy or its legions of graduates working around the world. In July, the academy and federal agencies lifted the Sea Year suspension for work on ships operated by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard and MarAd.

During the suspension for commercial Sea Year, the nonprofit Logistics Management Institute (LMI) conducted an independent “culture audit” of USMMA. It found that 63 percent of women who took a Defense Manpower Data Center survey in 2013-14 reported being sexually harassed, and 17 percent of respondents reported being sexually assaulted within the prior year.

“These numbers for sexual harassment are almost one-third higher than the military service academies’ average of the same statistic, 48 percent, and these numbers for sexual assault are double the 8 percent military service academies’ average proportion,” the LMI report said.

Foxx, in his letter to Helis, said the audit’s findings “should alarm all of us.” He ordered Kings Point to develop a comprehensive plan “to build a climate of trust and respect at the academy” that protects students from assault and harassment as well as bullying, hazing, retaliation and victim blaming — all of which he said have been reported. He also directed Helis to follow recommendations in the LMI report to improve aspects of the Sea Year program.

In a separate letter to the USMMA student body, Foxx acknowledged the importance of Sea Year but also shortcomings that have put “too many young people at risk.”

“We have had to take steps to ensure that we are doing everything possible to create an environment where everyone feels respected, safe and empowered,” he wrote. “I believe that with the strong support of industry and the specific recommendations from LMI, participation in Sea Year can continue to be an important and unique part of the USMMA curriculum for years to come.”

USMMA did not respond to a request for comment on Foxx’s letter or the LMI report.

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