Renewing USMMA's Sea Year Program

File image courtesy USMMA

Published Nov 3, 2016 1:49 PM by Paul Benecki

In early 2014, a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipman assigned to a naval auxiliary vessel said that she had been “subject to repeated, unwanted touching” by a civilian crewmate during a port call. Her report was sent to the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, which conducted an initial investigation, then referred it to the vessel's operator for administrative action (standard when no crime is found). The civilian crewmate was flown home and administratively disciplined.

This incident is a small example of the pattern of sexual harassment, sexual assault and objectionable shipboard culture which has led USMMA to “stand down” the academy's Sea Year program, which assigns students to commercial and government vessels for shipboard training.

However, it appears to differ from other Sea Year incidents in several respects: first, the victim reported it; second, an appropriate law enforcement agency was informed, and it conducted an investigation; and third, the perpetrator was disciplined.

Some observers of the “stand down” have wondered whether suspending the program is justified, and whether law enforcement might be a better means of addressing the problem. A close look indicates that the reforms that USMMA and industry partners plan to enact during the stand down – including new policies on shipboard behavior and reporting – could be the first step towards getting cases to law enforcement or administrative review at all.

Non-reporting appears to be standard

USMMA has noted a wide gap between the number of midshipmen who state on anonymous surveys that they have been assaulted and the number who make formal reports.

As an estimate of the size of the problem, the academy's biennial survey put Sea Year sexual assault incidents at 10 female victims in 2012, and six to nine in 2014, out of a total of roughly 130 female students. However, the academy could only identify two Sea Year cases resulting in an investigation – the case above, and a second, which did not involve law enforcement and ended when the student chose not to pursue the matter further.

The primary deterrent to reporting appears to be a fear of retaliation. In its latest internal study USMMA noted a widespread concern among female midshipmen that a formal report would result in “retaliation, peer repercussions, [and] potential career consequences.” 70 percent of female midshipmen surveyed said they felt that a report would not be kept confidential, and an equal percentage believed that they themselves would be blamed for the incident.

"If this trend is any indication, there are many assaults not being reported, and therefore, many midshipmen are not receiving the support services they need to deal with this heinous crime," wrote Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in an introduction to the survey results. "It is unacceptable that not all midshipmen feel that they can come forward to report an incident of sexual assault."

Law enforcement

The Sea Year sexual assault case detailed above also differs in that law enforcement was involved in an investigation.

On an American ship, failure to inform authorities may not be lawful: the master of a U.S.-flagged vessel is required to tell the Coast Guard about a complaint of sexual assault at sea, or face a fine. Despite the requirement, and despite the estimated number of cases, the Coast Guard's Investigative Service “has no record of conducting any investigations related to the USMMA,” said USCG spokeswoman Lisa Novak.

Ms. Novak noted that the FBI would have the lead criminal investigative role following a report; representatives of the designated FBI unit and public affairs division did not return repeated requests for comment.

Beyond law enforcement, there may be an additional reason for reporting sexual assault to the Coast Guard: the USCG alone has the ability to take administrative action on mariners' licenses, an enforcement and deterrent option not available to other agencies. 

Denise Krepp, former general counsel for the Maritime Administration (MARAD), the academy's parent agency, suggests that some victims may decide to resolve the matter by a civil settlement – without law enforcement involvement – potentially leaving no records.

Krepp also alleges that for at least a limited period of time, the academy ignored reports of sexual assault, and says that MARAD resisted her attempts to initiate an investigation.

In 2011, Krepp sent a letter to the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, notifying the department that a senior employee at USMMA had informed her “that sexual assaults against Academy students both on campus and during their required time at sea are being reported . . . and yet no action is taken to investigate or otherwise address these complaints.” Krepp says that a senior department official asked her to resign shortly thereafter.

Since the time of these alleged events, new leaders have taken the top posts at MARAD and USMMA. The academy's current policy requires opening criminal and administrative investigations into all “unrestricted reports” of sexual assault; the filing of such a report automatically initiates this process, including notification to law enforcement. If a student wishes a report to remain confidential, without an investigation, that option is available as well.

As part of the stand down, MARAD says that it is reviewing new, industry-written shipboard policies for sexual assault / sexual harassment specific to the Sea Year program.

Criminal justice has limits

Even if all Sea Year cases were formally reported up the chain of command, then referred to law enforcement, the odds of jail time for any perpetrator, anywhere in the United States, are generally low. Advocacy organization End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) estimates the prosecution rate for perpetrators at between 0.2 and 5.2 percent nationwide, and incarceration at 0.2 to 2.8 percent, factoring in unreported cases. Prosecutors may perceive sexual assault cases to be more difficult to win than others; some criminal justice experts express concern that this may lead authorities to choose to deploy their limited resources on other felony offenses instead.

It is difficult to determine how these shoreside law enforcement trends compare with those for the U.S. flag fleet. Reports of sexual assault made to the U.S. Coast Guard are not tracked, says spokeswoman Lt. Katherine Braynard, “due to the large amounts of variables that go into determining the baseline for this data.”

Is lack of evidence an obstacle to investigating crimes at sea?

Since the enactment of the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010, cruise lines have been required to provide sexual assault victims with access to a full forensic examination aboard ship, with trained medical professionals who use standard evidence kits to preserve DNA. They are also required to report sexual assault and other criminal offenses directly to the FBI.

There is no equivalent carriage requirement for merchant vessels, and USMMA suggests that an evidence kit would not be available at sea. Even if the equipment were aboard, a full forensic examination would not be practical, says Joanne Archambault, executive director of EVAWI, given merchant officers' limited medical qualifications. However, this isn't necessarily an obstacle to justice, she says: even the preservation of clothing or the use of a simplified evidence kit could assist in a later investigation.

Archambault emphasized that even when DNA evidence isn't needed to prove the identity of the assailant, it is still important to retain it to help make a criminal case: sexual assault is often a serial offense, and the DNA material collected may match DNA evidence from prior cases – linking the suspect to multiple crimes.


The academy has initiated the Sea Year stand down in order to work with industry to reform reporting policies, and to address what administrators describe as a shipboard culture of harassment, hazing, coercion and retaliation – all of which are reasons for students to fear speaking up. (USMMA also noted in a statement that “change in shipboard culture benefits everyone who lives and works on commercial vessels, not just the midshipmen who temporarily ride them.”)

Whether the stand down is an overreaction, whether it has been well communicated to stakeholders or whether it is enough of an intervention to attain its goals will all remain open to debate; but if midshipmen continue to perceive great risk and little advantage in reporting abusive behavior, neither the chain of command nor the shoreside authorities will find out about the majority of cases – effectively removing administrative or criminal justice from the equation.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.