Preventing Sexual Assaults

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The USMMA marching band participated in the 2016 Great Neck Memorial Day Parade. (Photo by Mimi Hu)

Part 1 of a 3-part series on safety at the USMMA and in our community

One of the most unique features of our beautiful peninsula is that it’s home to the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point. The USMMA, also known as the academy, was established in 1943.

The Kings Point campus was originally Walter Chrysler’s 12-acre waterfront estate, Forker House, which is now USMMA’s Wiley Hall. Great Neck residents are accustomed to seeing and interacting with midshipmen from the academy on a regular basis. They are visible walking in uniform on Middle Neck Road, marching in local parades, running near Steppingstone Park and volunteering throughout the community, particularly on ambulances for the Vigilant Fire Company. In fact, at Vigilant’s EMS Dinner in June, more than 100 active male and female USMMA midshipmen were recognized for their dedication as student volunteers.

The USMMA marched in the 92nd Great Neck Memorial Day Parade in 2016. (Photo by Jessica Vega)

The USMMA is charged with training officers for the United States Merchant Marine branches of the military as well as the transportation industry. Midshipmen, as students at the academy are called, are trained in marine engineering, navigation, ship administration, maritime law, personnel management, international law, customs and many other subjects important for running a large ship. Surprisingly, USMMA is not a military academy or college—it is a quasi-military service academy, one of five that exist in the United States. Because of its unique status, the academy is not subject to most New York State laws that apply to colleges. Instead, it is governed by federal laws.

Resources and Support for Reporting Sexual Assault

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited USMMA in October 2016 and proposed reforms that would provide midshipmen with resources and support to report sexual-assault crimes as well as give USMMA staff further training to respond to and prevent sexual assault on campus and during the midshipmen’s year at sea.

The USMMA Band and Color Guard at the 90th Great Neck Memorial Day Parade in 2014 (Photo by USMMA)

Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Tom Suozzi then introduced bicameral legislation known as the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act. This legislation would help address sexual assault and harassment by giving midshipmen additional resources to report these crimes and offer the academy more training and resources to respond to and prevent sexual assault both on campus and at sea. The bill would also, for the first time, make the USMMA subject to the Title IX requirements that are followed by every other college and university in the United States where students are eligible for federal student financial aid.

As a result of the legislation and reforms on campus, a Nassau County nonprofit victims’ services organization, The Safe Center, has begun providing increased training at the academy and will continue to be involved on an ongoing basis to ensure that protections are in place and prevent future students from becoming victims.

This legislative initiative began last year when a shocking survey revealed that more than 19.5 percent of female USMMA midshipmen said they were sexually assaulted for the 2015–16 year, while only four incidents were reported to academy officials. According to the survey, 73 percent of the assaults took place on academy grounds in Kings Point. During the same period, fewer than 1 percent of male midshipmen reported sexual assault.

Safe Center Provides Training and 24-Hour Hotline

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

The new reforms and legislation have resulted in increased trainings on campus during the past six months by the Bethpage-based The Safe Center (www.tscli.org), which has been providing education to prevent sexual assaults at the academy for several years, according to Anthony Zenkus, director of education and training.

“The Safe Center appreciates the efforts of Senator Gillibrand to expand Title IX protections to the Merchant Marine Academy,” said Zenkus. “Too many victims of sexual assault have felt that they could not safely come forward in the past. This bill and these provisions will make a difference in the lives of so many young women and men who are suffering with the trauma of having been victims of sexual assault.”

Due to USMMA midshipmen’s unique status as inactive reservists, the Department of Defense SAFE Helpline, as currently designed, is not an appropriate resource for them. Prior to the legislation and the involvement of The Safe Center, USMMA midshipmen did not have access to a sexual assault hotline, support or resources. The Safe Center now directly supports the midshipmen at USMMA by offering a 24-hour reporting hotline for any incidents that require immediate assistance during the academy’s off-hours. The support is free, confidential and similar to services offered by the Department of Defense SAFE Hotline.

The Safe Center is located in Bethpage.

USMMA has moved swiftly forward with implementing the needed reforms and proposed legislative requirements, in coordination with The Safe Center. On Feb. 10, the USMMA men’s and women’s swimming and diving coaches Sean Tedesco and Johan Lopez took nearly two dozen student athletes to The Safe Center, where they learned valuable social lessons about family violence and sexual assault that affect our community.

“Our experience was educational for our future leaders as they continue to promote a culture of respect,” said Tedesco.

The team received two hours of education regarding prevention and awareness of sexual assault, how to become an upstander and learned about the services the center provides. They also received a tour of The Safe Center.

Female members of the swimming and diving teams, along with numerous other midshipmen and student athletes, “have been doing their part to enhance the culture at the academy,” according to the USMMA website.

The group has created a presentation, Be the Change, which has been presented to groups around the campus, including the athletics staff. The group has expressed the need for more positive reforms on the campus, “to strive for forward progress and unity, create
a positive atmosphere and climate on campus that will in turn foster a feeling of ownership, camaraderie and growth.”

The Safe Center’s Education Coordinator Claudia Sandez was one of three educators who spent nine days at the USMMA campus in June and July, providing intensive training to midshipmen and administrators. Education about sexual assault was provided to every freshman on the campus.

“At present, compared to some other schools, the academy is taking a proactive approach to the issue of sexual assault, although there is always more than can be done,” said Zenkus. “We are in touch with the administrators at the academy and are providing support on a regular basis. Our relationship is deepening going forward. At this point, USMMA is cooperating on a voluntary basis and doing even more than what is legally required.”

For additional details regarding the proposed legislation cosponsored by Suozzi and Gillibrand that affects the USMMA, look for Part 2 of this series in an upcoming issue. The third and final installment will provide information about how victims can obtain help in the event of a rape or sexual assault.

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 2 and Part 3.

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