Merchant Marine cadets endure rough waters as sexual misconduct roils their ranks
When will the military be able to have disciplined troops that do not casually break the law and then cover it up? The constant repetition of sexual assaults suggests strong that the officers in our military have no control over those under their command (and, unfortunately, often no control over themselves.)
Lisa Rein reports in the Washington Post:
They call it the “safe word.”
It’s the secret code that cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy are advised to use if things get really rough during their year-long shipboard training on merchant vessels thousands of miles from shore, or at ports far from home. Women — and men, in some cases — can use it as a fail-safe if the lewd comments and unwanted advances from fellow sailors escalate to something worse. The government will bring them ashore.
But like many efforts by this federal service academy to confront inappropriate behavior, the safe word has not worked.
It was “Goldfish” in 2012, the year Erika Lawson, an engine cadet on a commercial ship for what is known as “sea year,” was pushed against the back seat of a taxi and groped by the chief mate to force her to kiss him. She tried to push him away.
Lawson was 19 and didn’t use the safe word — provided by administrators — to email or phone the school. She was 7,810 miles from shore, in port in Saipan in the North Pacific.
Back on campus in New York, it took her more than a year to file a “restricted report,” which informed the school that she had a bad experience. There were no names and no investigation.
“I feel like you’re taught there to keep your head down and just get through it,” said Lawson, 24 and working as a third assistant engineer on a cruise ship out of New York Harbor. “The sexual assault policies are a total joke. Everybody would just snicker and laugh during the training.”
Right after the assault, she wrote the chief mate a note telling him she felt violated. He then slipped $200 in cash under her door — and kept working, she said.
“I’m tired of people saying this doesn’t happen, or that I have to suck it up and act like a man,” Lawson said.
Her tentative response was more than most victims can muster. The smallest and least known of the five national service schools, the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point — which trains graduates to become officers in the Navy, Coast Guard and the U.S. commercial shipping industry — has by far the highest rates of sexual assault and harassment, federal surveys show. About 15 percent of Kings Point students are women.
Few of these cases are reported. But government surveys and focus groups show a long-standing problem ignored for years by the federal government. It has finally led to a reckoning at this forgotten outpost on Long Island Sound about 20 miles east of New York City, the first of the service academies to admit women 42 years ago but which today trains the fewest.
The Post does not normally identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but several agreed to speak on the record to bring public attention to what they believe is a serious problem at the academy.
The school is a military and civilian hybrid whose glory days came during World War II. Its heavily unionized fleet is dwindling amid growing automation and competition from foreign ships, which transport goods for less than American vessels.
Kings Point trains about 1,000 students tuition free for four years, including up to 330 days at sea. Students are nominated by their member of Congress. Graduates are licensed by the Coast Guard and must work five years in the maritime industry or eight in the Navy Reserves, unless they go on active duty.
The academy’s accreditation is now at risk — a first for a federal service school — and it is under growing scrutiny from Congress, its advisory board and the inspector general’s office at the Department of Transportation, its parent agency.
In response, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in June canceled Kings Point’s most prestigious feature, a grueling year at sea where midshipmen apprentice on large deep-sea ships. Citing rising sexual misconduct both at sea and on campus, school leaders say they won’t reinstate sea year until midshipmen are safe.
“In our judgment, we could no longer continue to send them to sea with the status quo,” Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the school superintendent, said in an interview in his office with a sweeping view of Manhattan and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges. . .