[Updated] USMMA Suspends Shipboard Training Program

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Published Nov 3, 2016 1:50 PM by Paul Benecki

The United States Merchant Marine Academy released a statement Thursday indicating that the academy is suspending training on working merchant vessels until “it is assured that [Midshipmen’s] training will be carried out in a safe environment.” The full statement follows:

While the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) have made consistent efforts to address sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus over the last few years, we’ve grappled with appropriate means of extending these efforts during “Sea Year” when the Midshipmen are off campus training on working U.S. merchant marine vessels.

The safety of these young women and men are our highest priority, and the USMMA is standing down having Midshipmen serve on these vessels until it is assured that their training will be carried out in a safe environment. 

On June 24, MARAD is convening a Call-to-Action with the maritime industry to address these issues, as well as their overall safety, as we begin to develop a comprehensive plan that protects the Midshipmen. 

We are making every effort to ensure an on-time graduation for any affected students.

A USMMA Sea Year program staff member declined to comment.

The academy has not yet released a detailed explanation of the reason for its decision, but the Maritime Administration – which oversees the USMMA – said that no specific incident prompted the suspension of Sea Year. 

“There is no specific incident prompting this action . . . Sea Year is a unique situation for these young men and women, and we believe there continues to be a need to address the culture onboard vessels to better ensure Midshipmen are in an environment that is both safe and respectful.  This is not just about Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment, but an effort to ensure the Sea Year is an appropriate training and work environment for the Midshipmen,” said MARAD spokeswoman Kim Strong in a statement Thursday.

Strong said that graduation timelines will not be affected, and that Midshipmen currently at sea will disembark and return home when they reach their next port.  

A spokesman for USMMA said Friday that more than 200 individuals were presently at sea, and on Monday the Academy clarified that different groups would be affected in different ways: “anyone due to return before the end of June will finish their time as planned [and] all 2017s and 2016 deferred midshipmen will remain on their currently assigned vessels.” The academy will be paying for all return trips. 

The spokesman confirmed that there was no specific incident prompting the program’s suspension – rather that the decision resulted from ongoing talks between the school, the Department of Transportation and MARAD. 

According to the academy’s academic calendar, the Class of 2019-B was due to be assigned to shipboard training June 20.

The USMMA 2014-2015 program year preliminary report on sexual assault and sexual harassment found that even after the implementation of new programs to improve behavior and safety, some students and faculty "still see and hear an overabundance of sexist behaviors and remarks and recognize that many Midshipmen do not take training on the topic seriously. Midshipmen see retaliation, accusations of reports being perceived as false, and damage to one's career as formidable obstacles in feeling comfortable enough to come forward and report." 

The report said that USMMA intends to update its findings after another round of interview data is analyzed, and the results were expected in the spring of 2016.

The Senate version of the MARAD Reauthorization Act of 2017, which will authorize the academy's funding for the next fiscal year, includes language requiring MARAD to "convene a working group to examine methods to improve the prevention of, and response to, any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs during a [USMMA Midshipman's] Sea Year." 

In an interview with MaritimeTV at the USMMA commencement ceremony on Saturday, Maritime Administrator Paul "Chip" Jaenichen addressed the reason behind the temporary “stand down” of Sea Year. "The decision we made is based on conditions that are going on, and it's not just sexual harassment or sexual assault, it's all the things that are surrounding it - it's the harassment, it's the hazing, it's the coercion, it's the retaliation . . . that's not a conducive environment for training, and it's just not the way we should treat people," Jaenichen said. "The bottom line is, we're not trying to end Sea Year – we're trying to mend it."

Jaenichen said that his objective would be to allow midshipmen to learn their duties and fulfill their requirements "in an environment that is respectful of just normal, societal norms. And right now we have isolated incidents where that is not the case . . . we're not putting a question mark on the entire industry, it's just isolated incidents." 

He said that his administration owes it to "those mothers and fathers that are entrusting us with their children, to make sure that the environment that we're sending them to is an environment that [I] would want to send my child to, if that were the case, and I don't want to send anybody else's child in that situation."