DOT Provides New Details on Sea Year Suspension

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Published Oct 27, 2016 11:46 AM by The Maritime Executive

On October 25, the Department of Transportation provided new details on its decision to suspend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's keystone Sea Year program over persistent problems with sexual assault, harassment and intimidation. 

DOT's new statements were in response to questions from a group of 20 Congressional representatives on the status of the suspension and on the academy's accreditation, which is at risk due to alleged management deficiencies. 

The agency said that the decision to suspend Sea Year was based on public information from the academy's own annual reports on sexual harassment and sexual assault (SA/SH), in addition to "group discussions and individual interviews with Midshipmen who have returned from Sea Year," which revealed a pattern of hazing, coercion, harassment and retaliation while under way. DOT acknowledged that information from interviews was anecdotal, but that when combined with a history of harassment and underreporting, it was sufficiently concerning to warrant action. 

The agency also provided a more complete timeline on the events leading up to its decision:

- Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen held conversations with industry leaders on the issue in January and again in April. 

- Given the information described above, and with another group of midshipmen about to depart for their Sea Year assignments, Secretary Anthony Foxx ordered the stand down on June 13. 

- Coast Guard, Navy and Army experts were brought in for a "Call-to-Action" meeting with industry leaders June 24.

Sea Year was reinstated on federally-owned vessels in August, but the program remains suspended on commercial ships pending a consultants' review of SA/SH at the academy. 

State maritime academy cadets may continue to ship out on the same commercial vessels for sea time, a point of contention for some USMMA alumni, parents and students. DOT said that while it directly supervises USMMA, it does not have the authority to require the state academies to suspend their own training programs.

The agency also addressed the question of midshipmens' pay, the wages that they would earn on commercial ships but cannot while Sea Year remains suspended. DOT noted that while they cannot sail on commercial vessels, many midshipen are getting their sea time on Ready Reserve Force vessels – the active, maintained component of the National Defense Reserve Fleet (or "mothball fleet"). 

Midshipmen assigned to the RRF serve without pay, but they are still fulfilling the requirements towards their licenses. DOT noted that they continue to benefit from USMMA's low cost of attendance, estimated at $3,500 (excluding personal expenses like transportation to campus, health insurance and sundries).

DOT said that it would not be adjusting any graduation requirements for students affected by the stand down – nor could it, as licensing is administered by the Coast Guard in accordance with IMO standards. However, the agency remains optimistic that graduation delays will be minimal.