Lawmakers push for more reforms to prevent sexual assault at sea

Last month, a CNN investigation found that students still face barriers in reporting sexual assault at the academy, despite repeated pledges of reform, and revealed how rarely alleged assailants are held accountable. The proposed legislation is the latest effort to grapple with shipboard sexual misconduct, which has received renewed attention after a student alleged she was raped by her supervisor during the school’s mandatory Sea Year training program.

CNN’s report highlighted the fear of not being able to graduate, since students are typically required to obtain merchant mariner licenses and are only eligible to do that if they receive a certain number of days at sea — something that could become impossible if a student is removed from a ship after reporting sexual assault or harassment.

The proposed legislation, which is bipartisan and was introduced by members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, would grant the Secretary of Transportation the power to waive this licensing requirement. As a result, students who report sexual assault or harassment during Sea Year — and any other students who don’t feel safe on a ship — would be able to request an exemption and still have the ability to graduate even if they don’t obtain a license.

The chair of the committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio, was one of the lawmakers who initially put pressure on the school upon learning of the rape allegation from a current student last year. He said this week he “believes no student should be forced to either relive their trauma should they fear for their safety returning to sea or be forced to leave the academy because they can’t graduate.”

The Maritime Administration, which oversees the academy, did not comment directly on the bill’s licensing exemption provision, but a spokesperson previously told CNN that “fear of being unable to obtain the requisite sea time has been a barrier to reporting,” and that policies the agency put forth in December stress the school will do whatever it can to help students obtain the required time at sea so they can graduate.

As part of that same package of reforms rolled out last year, which the agency announced after temporarily suspending Sea Year, ship operators must also meet a number of requirements in order to carry students during the school’s sea training program — such as prohibiting crew members and cadets from entering each other’s rooms and immediately reporting any incidents of sexual misconduct to the school if the ship is carrying an academy student, whether or not the student was involved.

Several members of the school community previously told CNN that one of the most promising reforms the agency announced was video monitoring on ships, but it was included as a consideration and not mandated. The new bill would require ships to implement video and audio surveillance that can be relied on in criminal and safety investigations.

The proposed legislation also applies to the broader maritime industry and is not only targeted at the academy’s Sea Year program.

The Maritime Administration said Tuesday that the agency has been working closely with students at the school, as well as government and industry “stakeholders” to continue to bring about change. “We appreciate Congress’ continuing support for these efforts and any additional resources they can bring to help ensure that all mariners have a safe and welcoming workplace,” the spokesperson said.

Among other provisions, the new bill would extend the statute of limitations that alleged victims are given to pursue civil actions against assailants and employers, and it would allow the Coast Guard to permanently strip mariner credentials from those who have been convicted of sexual assault.

“With this legislation, we can help fight assault and harassment in maritime transportation through penalties for perpetrators, new requirements for owners, expanded legal recourse for victims, and a myriad of policies to prevent sexual assault and harassment in the first place,” DeFazio said.

Do you have an experience or information to share about the US Merchant Marine Academy or the maritime industry? Email us at [email protected]

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