Government reforms training at sea program after alleged rape of 19-year-old student

The federal government plans to begin sending students at the US Merchant Marine Academy back to sea later this month, resuming a key training program that had been temporarily suspended in the wake of an allegation that a 19-year-old student was raped on a ship.

The program was halted early last month, just weeks before students were set to embark on their voyages, as lawmakers sharply criticized the school for failing to protect students.
    As part of the decision announced Wednesday, the Department of Transportation and the Maritime Administration released a long list of new safety standards that the academy (USMMA) and shipping companies must implement, saying they anticipate lifting the suspension on Dec. 22.
      “Sea Year,” when students are typically sent in pairs to work alongside older, predominantly male crew members on commercial vessels, is one of the academy’s major draws. It provides students with real world experience before entering the maritime industry — with many graduates going on to become engineers and leaders at shipping companies.
          Among the reforms to the program, the academy says it will ensure that students are allowed to use satellite phones and satellite texting devices to receive support while at sea. It also introduced a new amnesty policy it says will protect students reporting sexual assault — as well as bystanders and witnesses — from getting in trouble if alcohol or drug use policies were violated at, or near, the time of the alleged assault.
          Ship operators, meanwhile, must adhere to more than 30 new measures before they are allowed to carry USMMA students. These include designating someone within the company on shore who is specially trained with victim assistance with whom students can communicate regularly and contact about any issues involving sexual assault, and immediately reporting any incidents to the USMMA — whether or not it involved a student.
          This is the second time Sea Year has been suspended in the past five years amid concerns about sexual assault and harassment. The program was previously halted in 2016 and reinstated the following year when the school pledged that new rules and a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment would keep cadets safe both on campus and at sea.
          But this September, a student published an anonymous account online, saying she was raped by her supervisor, a senior crew member, in 2019 while aboard a Maersk ship during Sea Year. Since returning to campus, she said she learned nine other female students currently enrolled at the academy said they had also been raped during their Sea Year.
          As her post circulated among the USMMA community and the maritime industry, lawmakers blasted the school, Maersk suspended five crew members, both the company and the federal government began investigating the reported rape and the Transportation Department suspended Sea Year while it reviewed the program and discussed improvements.
          The agency said Wednesday it is hopeful the newest requirements will allow Sea Year to resume in a way that helps keep students safe from sexual assault and harassment and better protects victims.
            “The plan is an initial step,” Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley said in the statement. “All parties are committed to continuing to review this program frequently, and to make improvements whenever needed to ensure the safety and success of USMMA cadets.”
            Do you have an experience or information to share about the US Merchant Marine Academy or the maritime industry? Email us at watchdog@cnn.com.

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