USMMA’s Sea Year on pause again after new sex assault allegations

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(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. Department of Transportation announced late Tuesday that it has decided to pause the next cycle of Sea Year at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., citing new allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the program.

The decision follows a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg from the leaders of six congressional committees who called for the resignation of the USMMA Superintendent Jack Buono and the immediate suspension of cadet shipping nationwide. It is the second time in five years that the program has been paused over allegations of sexual misconduct at sea.

A joint letter to USMMA midshipmen was released Tuesday from Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of the Transportation Department; Lucinda Lessley, acting administrator at the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd); and USMMA’s Buono. Here is the text of the letter:

Dear midshipmen:

We write to you today with an update on the letter sent a few weeks ago from DOT and MarAd about our commitment to work with all of you to address sexual assault and harassment (SASH) at United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and throughout the maritime industry.

As we promised, over the past several weeks, we have met, spoken with, and heard from many of you to discuss both how Sea Year is organized and conducted and the larger issue of SASH at USMMA and throughout the maritime industry. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as the three of us, have also had meetings with academy leadership, faculty and staff; alumni; leaders from the maritime industry, maritime labor, and the state maritime academies, and leaders from the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Transportation Command, the U.S. Coast Guard, and experts in the field of SASH in both military and academic settings. In addition, we have closely examined the policies and procedures regarding SASH currently in place at USMMA and in the maritime industry.

We are awed and inspired by your thoughtfulness, poise and passion for service. We also know that you sought appointments to the Merchant Marine Academy precisely because you want to pursue careers at sea and ashore that will advance the security and economic well-being of our nation. We understand that obtaining sea time is a critical part of USMMA’s education and essential to the credentialing process, and that it is the USMMA’s long-standing tradition – unique among U.S. maritime academies – of providing all sea time on commercial vessels that led so many of you to choose USMMA. We have also heard from many midshipmen and alumni – women and men – how much they valued their training at sea.

We also believe that USMMA midshipmen must have a safe and respectful environment in which to pursue their studies – on land and at sea – with zero tolerance for SASH. To achieve this, we must implement strong measures to prevent SASH, remove barriers to reporting if these crimes do occur, ensure perpetrators are held accountable and brought to justice, and provide unwavering support and assistance to survivors.

Our conversations have generated many recommendations for both immediate and longer-term measures to improve safety on campus and at sea for Kings Point cadets – and for all mariners – and we look forward to receiving your feedback and additional ideas in the days ahead.

Over the past few weeks, we have made significant progress toward implementing several of these measures, and are deeply grateful for the creativity, dedication and hours of hard work by USMMA, MarAd and DOT staff, and the leadership of the U.S. Coast Guard, maritime industry and maritime labor.

On Friday, the chairs of the congressional authorizing committees with jurisdiction over USMMA officially asked us to formalize these measures into a public written action plan that includes detailed steps that will be taken to strengthen protections for cadets at sea before cadets sail again. We will develop this together with the entire maritime community for review by the leadership of these committees.

In light of this, we have made the extremely difficult decision to pause the next Sea Year sailing temporarily. It is our hope to have a plan quickly that unites the entire maritime community and that we can present to Congress so that you can resume sailing in December.

This decision was one of the most difficult we have faced.

We know that all USMMA midshipmen and their families are counting on us to take every possible step to keep them safe while also ensuring they complete the training they need to pursue their chosen careers.

We recognize that this comes at a time when you have already been tested through nearly two years of profound disruptions and adjustments resulting from the COVID pandemic. While we know that this decision will be disappointing to many, we also expect that as leaders who have chosen the path of service, you will support it and each other.

We are committed to continuing to work with midshipmen, faculty, staff, alumni, the state maritime academics, carriers, labor, the Coast Guard and the Congress to strengthen safety throughout the maritime industry and to foster an inclusive climate in which assault, harassment and discrimination are not tolerated. We are also committed to ensuring that you receive the education and training that is needed to graduate ready to embark on careers throughout the maritime industry and in the U.S. military.

As part of that engagement, we will be establishing a midshipmen advisory committee that will work with our USMMA Advisory Board to give you a voice in decision making.

Finally, we understand that one of the reasons that midshipmen have hesitated to come forward to report incidents is fear of retaliation. We want to remind all midshipmen that you have enrolled in an institution that is educating you to lead with integrity, honor and dedication. Retaliation has no place in our community and will not be tolerated. We appreciate your commitment to supporting each other.

USMMA leadership will convene a series of meetings this week — including an all-hands meeting with midshipmen on Wednesday and a town hall with the broader Kings Point community later in the week – to provide everyone an opportunity to continue these critical discussions. (Details will follow for both.)

This is a challenging time for USMMA and for the entire maritime industry. We stand in unwavering support of all survivors of SASH at sea and throughout the entire campus, and we pledge to continue to work closely with you as we navigate the way forward.

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By Professional Mariner Staff