US Merchant Marine Academy students who say they were victims of sexual assault remain reluctant to report their alleged assailants in ways that would prompt investigations, a new report from the academy shows.
Between July of 2019 and December 2022, 26 students alleged they had been sexually assaulted on or near campus or at sea.
Most of those students — around 80% — made so-called “restricted” reports, meaning they spoke confidentially to staff and students who worked as victim advocates. Making a restricted report allows the student to seek medical treatment and counseling without triggering an investigation.
The findings support a CNN investigation last year, which revealed that sexual misconduct was widespread but that students feared coming forward would jeopardize their educations and careers.
CNN’s investigation was sparked by allegations that a student was raped aboard a commercial ship while undergoing a mandatory school training program known as “Sea Year.” After that student, Hope Hicks, published an anonymous account of her alleged assault, school officials and lawmakers scrambled to put reforms in place to make the school and shipping industry safer.
The new report, however, shows that problems remain.
“There’s still this culture of fear that surrounds victims,” said Hicks about the number of restricted reports. “Until we see someone actually being brought down for their actions, victims aren’t going to feel comfortable enough to continue to come forward.”
Related: Culture of fear at Merchant Marine Academy silences students who say they were sexually harassed and assaulted
Hicks herself is absent from the school’s figures since she never felt comfortable reporting to academy officials, though she eventually went to the Coast Guard with her allegations.
According to the academy report, which is required by federal law, none of the 26 alleged assaults have resulted in criminal charges. Eight involved crew members on commercial vessels where the students were training, and of those, only two resulted in investigations. In one case, the victim declined to report to the Coast Guard, which is responsible for investigating crimes at sea. Instead, a shipping company investigation resulted in the crew member being demoted. In the other case, a Coast Guard criminal investigation remains ongoing.
The majority of assaults were allegedly perpetrated by fellow students. Two students who were identified by their alleged victims were investigated by the academy and disenrolled.
So far this school year — between July and December — five students have already reported sexual assaults, compared to six during the entire 2021-2022 school year.
The academy’s report also included data about reports of other sexual misconduct, which previously had not been quantified. Thirty-five students reported sexual and gender-based harassment, relationship violence and stalking since July 2019.
Students were much more likely to file “unrestricted reports” about these kinds of incidents, which typically prompt investigations by the academy, shipping companies or other authorities – but don’t necessarily make it to law enforcement.
The academy emphasized in its report that it has been attempting to make Sea Year safer for students but that the entire industry must come together “to advance urgently needed culture change.”
As part of the reforms rolled out in 2021, the Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy, now requires any operators carrying students during the sea training program to meet a number of safety standards. Crew members and cadets are prohibited from entering each other’s rooms, for example, and operators must immediately report any incidents of sexual misconduct to the school if the ship is carrying an academy student, whether or not the student was involved. Students have also been given satellite devices while at sea, and a new amnesty policy states that victims, bystanders and witnesses won’t get in trouble if alcohol or drug use policies were violated at, or near, the time of an alleged assault.
When it comes to on-campus misconduct, the academy said in the report that it has been attempting to strengthen its sexual assault prevention program and to better communicate its policies.
“Critically, we understand that these are just the first steps in what must be an ongoing and urgent effort to improve safety for USMMA Midshipmen — at sea and on campus,” the report stated. “We must also remove barriers that have prevented survivors and witnesses from reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
Do you have an experience or information to share about the US Merchant Marine Academy or the maritime or yachting industry? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.