Preventing Sexual Assaults

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Part 2 of a 3-part series on safety at the USMMA and in our community

U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi recently cosponsored proposed legislation with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to protect midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) from sexual assaults.

The legislation would build upon the USMMA’s reforms and codify the steps the academy is taking to make the Kings Point campus a safer place for students.

Unlike civilian college campuses, prior to the new proposed legislation, USMMA was not subject to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender. In addition, unlike other service academies, USMMA midshipmen were not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Due to USMMA’s unique status as a quasi-military academy, its leadership lacked a proper mechanism to enforce sexual harassment and sexual assault policies on campus.

Gillibrand and Suozzi stressed the importance of this legislation for midshipmen at the academy.

“While I applaud [the academy’s] plan to address the long-standing issues at USMMA, there is no enforcement mechanism if the academy does not follow the plan, and there is no guarantee that future academy leadership will take this problem seriously,” said Gillibrand. “Therefore, I have introduced a bill that puts much of his plan into law and ensures that the well-established gender-discrimination law, Title IX, applies to the academy like it already applies to every other college and university where students are eligible for federal student financial aid. In addition, my bill would provide resources so that the academy can provide students with a 24-hour helpline as well as satellite communications devices while they are at sea so that they can always get help if they need it.”

Suozzi added, “Our legislation, which requires the Merchant Marine Academy to comply with Title IX, will give students the resources they need to stay protected and make it easier to report crimes. Nearly every college in the U.S. is required to comply with Title IX regulations to ensure that incidents of sexual harassment and assault are reported and prioritized, and it’s time for the academy to do the same,” said Suozzi. “Aspiring midshipmen at the academy should be able to focus on getting the valuable hands-on skills and training that Sea Year provides them, without fear of sexual harassment, assault and violence. We need to ensure the academy remains the premiere institution of maritime education in America, and that starts with making every single student feel safe. I wish to thank Senator Gillibrand for her tireless work and advocacy on this issue, and I look forward to working with her to try and get this bill passed and ultimately signed into law.”

The Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act and Ongoing Training

The Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act removes the outdated exemption of the USMMA from compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal gender equity law followed by every other college in the U.S. where students are eligible for federal student financial aid.

Midshipmen will now have a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) to whom they can disclose incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and receive information about reporting and accessing services at the USMMA and in the community.

The Act also provides for a 24-hour helpline that offers midshipmen information about resources and support services.

Among other provisions, the Department of Transportation is directed to provide USMMA with more training materials and resources for sexual assault prevention and response, and the academy is directed to create a plan to prevent retaliation. The USMMA is also required to train staff who handle complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Much of the midshipmen training by The Safe Center focuses on the issue of consent.

Safe Center educators, including Claudia Sandez, who is holding the sign, with Lieutenant Boyle of the USMMA, in July (Photo courtesy of Anthony Zenkus, The Safe Center)

Affirmative consent goes beyond, “No means no.” It requires that both parties in a sexual interaction must actually indicate “Yes”—verbally or nonverbally—to demonstrate consent. Therefore, a participant who does not indicate “Yes,” or whois intoxicated or passed out, does not give consent to the sexual act. Without actual consent between the parties, a partner cannot assume that the victim’s silence is permission to have sex.

“Although the USMMA doesn’t fall under the state’s Enough Is Enough legislation, we are emphasizing affirmative consent in our trainings with the new cadets,” said The Safe Center’s Education Coordinator Claudia Sandez, who was present throughout the nine days of training at the academy. “Under the old consent standard, ‘No means no,’ the onus was placed on the victim to stop the sexual interaction. It perpetuated victim blaming. The new consent standard of affirmative ‘Yes’ puts the onus on both parties, to clearly be on the same page about consent in order to move forward.”

The third and final installment of this series, which will provide information about what individual victims can do to get help in the event of rape or sexual assault, will be featured in an upcoming issue.

Kings Point resident Jacqueline Harounian is a regular contributor to the Great Neck Record. She currently serves as a rape-crisis counselor and volunteer for The Safe Center, a nonprofit victims’ services organization in Bethpage. After recent reports of sexual assault of female midshipmen on the Kings Point campus, she was inspired to write this three-part series regarding the response of legislators and the USMMA.

Read Part 1 and Part 3.

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