Marine academy’s Sea Year program to resume on commercial ships

Joe Nikic
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)

The United States Merchant Marine Academy announced last week that it would begin allowing its students to serve on commercial vessels next month as part of the academy’s Sea Year.

The Sea Year, when midshipmen spend an academic year aboard a merchant vessel, was suspended in June to hold student training on acceptable conduct after reports of bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment. In July, the program was partly reinstated to allow midshipmen to serve Sea Year on federal ships, but not on commercial vessels.

Sea Year will resume on three of the commercial carriers the academy used before the program’s suspension: Crowley Maritime Corp., Maersk Line Ltd. and American Presidents Line, or APL.

“I commend the maritime industry’s efforts to combat sexual assault, sexual harassment and other coercive behaviors, particularly Crowley, Maersk and APL, which are the first companies to meet MARAD’s Sea Year requirements,” said Joel Szabat, the U.S. Maritime Administration’s (or MARAD’s) executive director.  “Commercial Sea Year training is a core training component of the academy and its midshipmen, and critical to the success of the industry, as today’s midshipmen are tomorrow’s operators.”

“The results of these collaborative efforts establish a formal protocol that will improve conditions for the United States Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen,” Szabat added. “These young men and women will receive valuable training on commercial ships that will strengthen the industry overall.”

Following an independent auditor’s report released last month calling for the academy to address sexual assault and harassment, then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy’s superintendent, in a letter that the academy could resume Sea Year on commercial vessels as long as the academy and Maritime Administration determine that a company has “complied with the credentialing criteria established” by the MARAD Shipboard Climate Compliance Team.

The program’s reinstatement includes the implementation of new policies aimed at addressing sexual assault or harassment.

The new policies include requiring commercial companies to issue an annual “companywide message” against sexual assault and harassment and annual sexual assault and harassment training that would “ensure that crew members clearly understand what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment, its negative impact, the importance of prevention, and the severe penalties for engaging in prohibited behavior or for failing to report an incident.”

A commercial company must submit documents to the maritime agency outlining its sexual assault and harassment training protocol, including its reporting procedures, “a description of the company’s investigation process and enforcement procedures and a mechanism for verifying understanding of the issue.”

There will also be a “zero-tolerance policy” that forbids romantic or sexual relationships between midshipmen and crew members and the consumption of alcohol by midshipmen under 21 years old. Companies are required to immediately report any violations to the marine academy.

James Tobin, president of the marine academy’s Alumni Association and Foundation, commended Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for her efforts, but noted the importance of restoring other commercial shipping companies to the program.

“This announcement is a very significant step toward the full restoration of Sea Year on commercial ships, and we are most grateful to Secretary Chao for recognizing the continuing need for this mission-critical training,” Tobin said. “Until there is an available berth for every midshipman to train aboard commercial vessels, the academy will continue to fall short in meeting its mission.”

“We nevertheless applaud Secretary Chao’s decisive action, and we look forward to working with the academy, Maritime Administration and Department of Transportation to ensure we meet the ultimate goal of full restoration in a timely manner,” he added.

In a report dated June 24, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education issued a warning to the academy about its accreditation status, citing the school’s failure to meet five of the agency’s 14 standards.

The report highlighted the academy’s noncompliance with its standards on financial planning, leadership, student services and resource allocation. Sea Year was also scrutinized by the agency.

The academy remains accredited while on warning, which is the least severe penalty used by the accrediting agency.

According to the Middle States report, academy officials are expected to submit a monitoring report by March 1 to the accrediting agency, stating the actions the school has taken to address its problems.

The report also states that the Middle States Commission will send a small team to the academy after it submits its monitoring report to ensure it is taking the right steps to address the problems.

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Joe Nikic

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