Agencies, alumni seek ‘root causes,’ solutions for USMMA harassment

A sexual harassment task force appointed by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s alumni association following suspension of the school’s Sea Year program determined that midshipmen are not worried about their personal safety while serving on commercial vessels as part of the training, and are confident in shippers’ commitment to addressing incidents of abuse and harassment.

But an interim report released in early December by the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation panel also states that midshipmen lack confidence in academy leadership, including the administration’s approach to addressing sexual assault and harassment on campus and at sea.

In June, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) announced that it had suspended Sea Year. The agency said the decision was based on the academy’s annual reports on sexual harassment and sexual assault as well as group discussions and individual interviews with midshipmen who had returned from the program. The review showed a pattern of hazing, coercion, harassment and retaliation while underway. While Sea Year was reinstated on federally owned vessels in August, the suspension remains in place for commercial ships pending a consultant’s review.

In a separate initiative, the USMMA alumni group convened a panel in October and hired consultant Self Solutions to conduct a study. The task force is comprised of alumni and industry representatives and is chaired by Capt. Eileen Roberson, USMMA Class of 1980. She was previously director of total force management for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, assistant for administration to the undersecretary of the Navy, and an associate administrator at MarAd.

The study, which relies on individual and group interviews with current midshipmen and recent graduates as well as anonymous surveys, found that the culture at Kings Point is neither tolerant of nor conducive to sexual assault. But there is lack of clarity among midshipmen about what constitutes sexual harassment both on campus and during Sea Year. The study also determined that various factors, including incidents resolved outside of formal channels and occurrences not viewed as harassment, underlie a perceived underreporting of sexual assault and harassment.

The interim report recommends reinstating Sea Year while improving USMMA leadership’s commitments to communication, transparency and building a culture of trust. It also says the academy needs to develop a curriculum that educates midshipmen on definitions of sexual harassment, coercion, hazing and bullying.

“In sharing common-sense recommendations with the Kings Point community, we hope to protect the livelihood of the next generation of female mariners,” said task force member Andrea Morrison, a 2010 USMMA alumna who currently sails on an American-flagged tank vessel. “Sea Year has always empowered young women to join the U.S. maritime fleet and provided them the training and credentials to enter into meaningful, impactful careers.”

The federal Department of Transportation (DOT), MarAd and the academy itself also are taking steps to resolve questions about sexual harassment on campus and during Sea Year.

In early October, the DOT hired a contractor to assess the “root causes” of sexual harassment at the academy. The 60-day review by the Logistics Management Institute was to focus on “inappropriate behaviors” on campus and especially during Sea Year.

According to a statement released by the academy, the contractor would assess the history, culture and climate at USMMA and would review prevention policies and reporting procedures. At the end of its review, the company was to provide recommendations to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “who is committed to eliminating these issues and building a climate of inclusion for all at the USMMA.”

In another response to the incidents of harassment, MarAd signed a $198,000 agreement in October with the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) to develop interactive computer-based training modules, a best-practices tool kit and other training materials on appropriate shipboard climate in the U.S. Merchant Marine. The training materials will be designed to help mariners better identify and prevent sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation, violence and other improper behavior while assisting industry efforts to promote a culture of zero tolerance for those behaviors. The deadline for outlining the best-practices materials was the end of December.

In November, the academy’s 13-member Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, held a public meeting on campus to discuss the sexual harassment issue. Parents, alumni and industry representatives urged the board to swiftly implement sexual misconduct policies, fully restore Sea Year and ensure the institution’s accreditation would not be lost. In June, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education reported that the academy failed to meet five of 14 benchmarks required to remain in good standing.

By Professional Mariner Staff