By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, CNN
The federal government’s academy for merchant seamen is halting a key training program that sends students thousands of miles from campus on commercial ships after a 19-year-old student is allegedly raped at sea.
The move from the Department of Transportation, which oversees the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), came just weeks before the students embarked on their “Year of the Sea” trip, in which the students are usually sent in pairs to work alongside older students, mostly male crew members.
In a letter to students informing them that the program has been temporarily suspended, school and transportation officials said the academy and the shipping industry were facing a “difficult period” and the decision to stop the program was “one of the most difficult we have had”. face.
Days earlier, lawmakers in Congress had expressed concern that academy students were at risk 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 main draws of the school, with many hoping to become engineers and leaders. in the shipping industry. .
Officials told students on Tuesday that the Year of the Sea will not resume until they are able to come up with a detailed plan with new security measures, as requested by lawmakers. They said navigation would not resume until December at the earliest. The letter did not provide details of the changes, but indicated that some were already underway and being discussed with the school community and the marine industry. Lawmakers had also called for the resignation of USMMA Superintendent Jack Buono, but no change in leadership was announced and Buono was one of the officials involved in Tuesday’s action.
This is the second time in five years that Sea Year has been interrupted due to concerns about sexual assault and harassment.
The academy first suspended the program in 2016, before reinstating it the following year and pledging that new rules and a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault and harassment would ensure the cadet safety on campus and at sea. Since then, school reports show that students have been reluctant to report sexual assault cases in part because they were so concerned that the Year of the Sea would be canceled again.
But a current student decided to come forward anonymously this fall, putting 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 she was the only woman on the ship and that for the next 50 days she had to continue working for her attacker and seeing 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 students currently enrolled in the academy said they were also raped. during their year of the sea.
As her story circulated among the USMMA community and others in the shipping industry, Maersk suspended five crew members and the company and the federal government investigated the reported rape.
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Midshipman-X responded to recent news on Wednesday, writing that while it was gratifying to see conversations unfolding about the industry change, it has also come under “pressure and scrutiny” which has increased with the decision. to suspend Sea Year.
She said the program is an essential part of the school and that “if anything has been accomplished by Sea Year’s first suspension, it is only that the problems have worsened” – claiming that broader changes in the school industry are needed to hold predators accountable and keep them away. ships.
“It was never my goal to see Sea Year suspended,” she wrote. “If every cadet is taken out of the industry, then yes, cadets will not be assaulted on board ships. But other sailors will always be attacked, the recent graduates of the Academy will always be attacked and nothing will have changed.
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