July 06, 2017

Gillibrand, Suozzi Introduce New Legislation To Legally Require U.S. Merchant Marine Academy To Address Sexual Assault of Midshipmen

Shocking survey found more than 19.5 percent of female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen say they were sexually assaulted for the 2015-2016 year, yet only 4 incidents were reported to Academy officials Legislation would subject Merchant Marine Academy to Title IX like every other college in the United States where students are eligible for federal student financial aid

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi introduced bicameral legislation known as the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act. This legislation would help address sexual assault and harassment by giving midshipmen more resources to report these crimes and give the Academy more training and resources to respond to and prevent sexual assault on campus and at sea.  The bill would also, for the first time, make the Merchant Marine Academy subject to the Title IX requirements that are followed by every other college and university in the United States where students are eligible for federal student financial aid. 

According to the USMMA’s most recent survey of midshipmen on sexual harassment and sexual assault, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 19.5 percent of women and 0.8 percent of men said they had been sexually assaulted, yet only 4 cases were reported to Academy officials during the 2015-2016 academic year. According to the same survey, 73 percent of the assaults took place on Academy grounds.

“While I applaud Superintendent Helis’s 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,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “Therefore, I have introduced a bill that puts much of his plan into law, and ensures that the well-established gender-discrimination law, Title IX, applies to the Academy, like it already applies to every other college and university where students are eligible for federal student financial aid. In addition, my bill would provide resources so that the Academy can provide students with a 24-hour helpline as well as satellite communications devices while they are at sea so that they can always get help if they need it.”

“Our legislation, which requires the Merchant Marine Academy to comply with Title IX, will give students the resources they need to stay protected and make it easier to report crimes. Nearly every college in the U.S. is required to comply with Title IX regulations to ensure that incidents of sexual harassment and assault are reported and prioritized, and it’s time for the Academy to do the same,” said Representative Tom Suozzi. “Aspiring midshipmen at the Academy should be able to focus on getting the valuable hands-on skills and training that Sea Year provides them, without fear of sexual harassment, assault, and violence. 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. I wish to thank Senator Gillibrand for her tireless work and advocacy on this issue, and I look forward to working with her to try and get this bill passed and ultimately signed into law.” 

Last week, the Academy made progress towards removal from academic warning following a review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). Last year, the Academy failed five of the fourteen standards after the MSCHE cited several concerns – in particular, problems related to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

In October 2016, Senator Gillibrand visited the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and proposed reforms that would provide midshipmen with more resources and support to report sexual assault crimes and would give USMMA staff more training to respond to and prevent sexual assault on campus and during the midshipmen’s year at sea.  Many of these proposed reforms are included in the “Culture Change Action Plan” released in January by the Academy and are also included in the legislation.

Specifically, the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act would do the following:

On Campus:

  • Removes the outdated exemption of the USMMA from compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal gender equity law followed by every other college in the U.S. where students are eligible for federal student financial aid;
  • Designates a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) to whom midshipmen can disclose incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault and receive information about reporting and accessing services at the USMMA and in the community;
  • Creates a 24-hour helpline to provide midshipmen with information about resources and support services;
  • Directs DOT to provide USMMA with more training materials and resources for sexual assault prevention and response. DOT will maintain a direct line of communication with the Academy’s sexual assault response staff outside the USMMA chain of command;
  • Directs the USMMA to create a plan to prevent retaliation;
  • Directs DOT to train Inspector General agents who investigate sexual assault cases; and
  • Requires USMMA to train staff who handle complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

Sea Year/ Commercial Vessels:

  • Authorizes funding for USMMA to purchase satellite communication devices for each midshipman at sea so that midshipmen can communicate with a safe reporting source while at sea;
  • Ensures that commercial shipping vessels that embark midshipmen are in compliance with industry requirements for proper crew safety and follow minimum crew training standards and sexual assault report protocols;
  • Authorizes USMMA to conduct unannounced “spot checks” on commercial shipping vessels hosting USMMA midshipmen;
  • Authorizes USMMA to conduct a survey with each midshipman at the completion of Sea Year regarding his or her experiences aboard commercial vessels; and
  • Requires industry and/or unions to maintain records of sexual assault training for all ships’ crew.

The Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act would build upon the Academy’s reforms and codify the steps the Academy is taking to make their campus and Sea Year a safer place for students.