The federal government’s academy for merchant mariners is halting a key training program that sends students thousands of miles away from campus on commercial ships after a 19-year-old student was allegedly raped at sea.
The decision by the Department of Transportation, which oversees the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), came just weeks before students were set to embark on their “Sea Year” voyage, in which students are typically sent in pairs to work alongside older, predominantly male crew members.
In a letter to students notifying them that the program has been temporarily suspended, school and transportation officials said the academy and the maritime industry were confronting a “challenging time” and that the decision to halt the program was “one of the most difficult we have faced.”
Just days earlier, congressional lawmakers expressed concern that students at the academy were being put in danger while participating in the Sea Year program.
Sea Year was designed to provide students at the academy, located in Kings Point, New York, with valuable experience working on commercial vessels and is one of the school’s major draws, with many hoping to go on to become engineers and leaders in the shipping industry.
Officials told students on Tuesday that Sea Year would not resume until they were able to put together a detailed plan with new safety measures as requested by lawmakers. They said sailing wouldn’t resume until December at the very earliest. The letter did not provide details about the changes but said that some were already in the works and being discussed with both the school community and the maritime industry. Lawmakers had also called for the resignation of USMMA’s superintendent Jack Buono, but no leadership changes have been announced and Buono was one of the officials involved with Tuesday’s action.
This is the second time in five years that Sea Year has been halted amid concerns about sexual assault and harassment.
The academy first suspended the program back in 2016, before reinstating it the following year and pledging that new rules and a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment would keep cadets safe both on campus and at sea. Since then, school reports show that students have been reluctant to report cases of sexual assault in part because they have been so worried that Sea Year would be canceled again.
But a current student did decide to come forward anonymously this fall, bringing the school under fire once again. Known as Midshipman-X, the woman wrote online that she was raped by her supervisor, a senior crew member, in 2019 while aboard a Maersk ship during Sea Year. She said that she was the only female on the ship and that for the next 50 days, she had to continue to work for her assailant and see him every day.
While she said she was too scared to report the crime at the time, she decided to share her experience after learning that nine other female students currently enrolled at the academy said they had also been raped during their Sea Year.
As her story circulated among the USMMA community and others in the maritime industry, Maersk suspended five crew members and both the company and the federal government have been investigating the reported rape.
Midshipman-X responded to the recent news on Wednesday, writing that while it has been rewarding to see conversations happening about changing the industry, she has also come under “pressure and scrutiny” that has increased with the decision to suspend Sea Year.
She said the program is an essential part of the school and that “if anything were accomplished by the first Sea Year suspension, it was only that the problems grew worse” — saying that broader industry changes are needed to hold predators accountable and keep them off ships.
“It was never my goal to see Sea Year suspended,” she wrote. “If every cadet is removed from the industry, then yes, cadets won’t be assaulted on ships. But other mariners will still be assaulted, recent graduates of the Academy will still be assaulted, and nothing will have changed.”
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