Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday proposed that cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy be provided with satellite phones when they train for a year at sea so they can quickly report sexual harassment or assault.
The senator added her name to a list of public officials alarmed by reports of widespread sexual misconduct at the little-known federal school that trains sailors to work in the federal government and on commercial ships.
“This scourge of sexual violence and harassment demands immediate action,” Gillibrand said at a news conference on the campus in Kings Point, N.Y. on Long Island Sound east of Manhattan. “The price of an education and job training at sea cannot be sexual assault and harassment.”
Some of her proposals mirror a bipartisan bill that cleared the Senate in July, requiring more rigorous sexual harassment reporting and training policies. Gillibrand said she plans to introduce legislation in the Senate that would also require Kings Point to comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender. Federal service academies are not covered by Title IX, although colleges are.
The least-known of the five federal service schools, the Merchant Marine Academy has the highest rate of sexual assault and harassment, federal data show. Although the school received just one report of sexual assault in the 2014-2015 academic year, government surveys show that 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men experienced unwanted advances or other sexual harassment, either at sea or back on campus. And 17 percent of women and 2 percent of men reported some kind of sexual assault, defined as unwanted contact, from groping to rape.
The claims led the Maritime Administration, the Transportation Department agency that oversees Kings Point, to indefinitely postpone the year at sea that’s the cornerstone of the four-year education. Federal officials said they are convinced that women — and some men — are not safe on board commercial ships.
The Sea Year stand-down has angered alumni and the maritime industry, who see a threat to the academy’s viability. Some alumni and union officials have questioned the conclusions that midshipmen are victims of abuse.
The Maritime Administration recently hired an outside contractor to spend multiple weeks at Kings Point assessing the school culture and how to change it. The alumni association announced a few weeks ago that it is conducting its own survey.
Gillibrand also called for a sexual assault hotline and a requirement that the government make spot checks on commercial ships during sea training.