Merchant Marine Academy sexual assault victims reluctant to trigger official investigations: report

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) has had 26 reported cases of sexual assault over the past three years, including five so far this school year, according to a new report released Wednesday.

In about 80 percent of the cases, which occurred between July 2019 and Dec. 15, students who alleged they were assaulted on or near campus or at sea made “restricted” reports on the incidents, allowing them to obtain medical treatment and counseling without sparking an investigation.

Students instead spoke confidentially to staff and students who worked as victim advocates, with none of the 26 alleged assaults yet resulting in criminal charges, CNN first reported.

USMMA also found 35 cases of “sexual harassment, gender-based harassment, relationship violence, and stalking,” in the same three-year time frame.

The findings display a reluctance among victims at the school to report their alleged assailants in a way that would open an investigation — a culture of fear that persists even as sexual assault and harassment are jarringly common at the academy.

The issue first came to light in 2021 after former student Hope Hicks published an anonymous account that alleged she was raped and harassed during her time on the USMMA’s “Sea Year” program. During the program, which requires months of work on a commercial ship to fulfill graduation requirements, Hicks said she was raped by the ship’s top-ranking officer, who was 40 years her senior.

Hicks along with another female academy midshipmen then filed related complaints in June 2022, alleging that shipping giant Maersk failed to adequately protect them.

“USMMA has long struggled to manage sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) issues,” the Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy, wrote in an assessment of the school in November 2021.

Further compounding issues is a reluctance of Midshipmen to report incidents due to “lack of privacy, confidentiality, an understanding of the SASH reporting process, and the long process for adjudication,” in addition to fear of retaliation, the administration noted.

Of the 26 reported assault cases in the past three years, the majority were allegedly perpetrated by fellow students. In two such cases, the academy investigated and disenrolled two Midshipmen who were identified by their alleged victims.

Eight cases involved crew members on commercial vessels where students trained, with only two resulting in an investigation.

Though the Maritime Administration rolled out a number of reforms aimed at making students safer, the academy stressed that “these are just the first steps in what must be an ongoing and urgent effort to improve safety for USMMA Midshipmen — at sea and on campus.”

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