KINGS POINT, N.Y. — U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets should be given satellite phones or other devices that would make it easier for them to report sexual abuse or harassment when they are at sea working as interns on commercial vessels, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Tuesday.
The proposal was one of several policy initiatives the New York Democrat said she plans to introduce in the Senate after academy leadership halted a program that places cadets on commercial vessels amid concerns of alleged abuse.
Academy administrators say sexual abuse surveys, interviews with cadets returning from the Sea Year program and other feedback led to the decision last summer to pull personnel off commercial vessels.
The Department of Transportation, which runs the military academy, has since placed cadets on government vessels to earn credits while it studies ways to stem alleged incidents of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, both at sea and at the campus in suburban Long Island.
Critics of the decision, including some alumni and parents of midshipmen, insist working on government ships is a weak substitute for the vigorous training cadets get on industry vessels. The leaders of four maritime unions also dispute findings that cadets are being abused.
But Gillibrand argued the temporary stand-down is necessary until administrators and others can be assured personnel are safe. She cited a 2014-15 survey of midshipmen that found 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men had been sexually harassed, and 17 percent of women had been sexually assaulted.
She noted that despite the findings, only one case was reported to academy officials because many feared retaliation, both from classmates at the academy and from personnel on the commercial vessels.
“This scourge of sexual violence and harassment demands immediate action,” she said.
Gillibrand also is proposing the academy be required to comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender. She said unlike the other service academies, which are overseen by the Department of Defense, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
She also called for the establishment of a sexual assault helpline, better training of staff and midshipmen on preventing assault, and a program of spot checks on commercial vessels where midshipmen are working.
Two separate inquiries — one by administrators and a second by the academy’s alumni association — are looking into the issue of sexual harassment and bullying.
Alumni Association President James Tobin said after Tuesday’s press conference that he’s hopeful Gillibrand’s initiatives would produce positive results.
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