Merchant Marine Academy suspends Sea Year program amid sexual assault allegations

Robert Pelaez
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy suspended its Sea Year, according to a letter from the Department of Transportation last week. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point will suspend a program that allows its midshipmen to spend a year of practical training across international waters due to sexual assault allegations, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The department, in a letter sent to midshipmen last week, said officials are hopeful a plan will be sent to Congress so sailing can resume by December.

“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,” the letter read.

The program, which dates back to 1942, has a sea period of 135 days for sophomores and 265 days for juniors. Midshipmen earn roughly $1,000 a month during their time at sea, working on commercial vessels and becoming educated on labor relations in the ocean shipping industry, according to the academy’s website.

Vice Admiral Jack Buono, superintendent of the academy, said he “fully supports” the decision to temporarily pause the Sea Year program and will help work on creating a plan that emphasizes safety in a letter to midshipmen.

“Your health, safety and well-being is our number one priority and we will continue to operate with that as our guide,” Buono said.

The announcement comes more than a month after a female cadet of the academy detailed sexual assault allegations during her Sea Year training. According to the cadet, whose name was not disclosed, an engineering supervisor raped her after a night of drinking.

The cadet said she was a 19-year-old virgin at the time of the alleged incident when she was assaulted by the 60-year-old supervisor, whose name was also not disclosed. The supervisor who raped her, she said, made derogatory comments to her and other women on the ship.

“He was creepy, made romantic passes at me and made crude and demeaning comments about me in front of other members of the engine department,” the account read. “It was a difficult work environment, to say the least, and not what I had expected Sea Year to be like.”

After around 50 days at sea, the ship pulled into a Middle East port where the officers purchased “a lot of alcohol,” according to the cadet. She said she was pressured to drink alcohol by older men and supervisors on the ship.

The cadet said her male sea partner enjoyed drinking and she felt an additional pressure to fit in, despite not having had any alcohol prior to arriving at the academy.

“As soon as I arrived the engineers began forcing shots of liquor on me and my sea partner,” she said. “They were like animals, drinking straight out of the bottles of liquor, doing shot after shot, being extremely annoying, yelling and laughing and making a lot of noise, and practically shoving shots down our throats.”

As she continued drinking, the cadet said, her sea partner became sick and was taken back to his room. The cadet said she blacked out shortly after, taking roughly another 8 to 10 shots of alcohol. The next morning, she woke up naked in her bed with a massive hangover and noticed blood on her sheets.

“I knew immediately that I had been raped,” the cadet said. “I was a virgin and had been saving myself, and as soon as I woke up I could feel that I was very sore and knew exactly what had happened.”

U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg and acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley said in a statement that the cadet has their “unwavering support” and that while resources are provided by the academy after these events occur, it is important to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

“We have a zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment at USMMA and in the maritime industry,” the statement read. “As we determine the appropriate steps required to increase and ensure the safety of our midshipmen, we pledge to listen to and work closely with the entire Kings Point community.”

The allegations from the cadet are not the only ones the academy has faced over the years. In June 2016, former Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx suspended the Sea Year program after allegations of sexual harassment, assault, hazing and bullying.

Four years later, the Department of Justice agreed to a $1.4 million settlement with a former male member of the academy’s soccer team. The man, whose name was not disclosed, alleged he was hazed and sexually assaulted at the academy in 2016.

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also released a joint statement last month saying that steps need to be taken to not have any more incidents of sexual assault or harassment while cadets receive their training.

“We must ensure that incidents of sexual harassment and assault are reported and prioritized, and that every single cadet feels safe whether on campus or at sea,” the statement read. “We will continue to work closely with the Merchant Marine Academy to put systems in place to ensure timely and thorough reporting.”

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