Sen. Gillibrand Eyes Policy Changes To Combat Sexual Violence At US Merchant Marine Academy

KINGS POINT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to equip U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets with satellite phones on commercial vessels to make it easier to report sexual abuse or harassment.

The New York Democrat includes the proposal in a list of policy changes she plans to introduce in the Senate.

The legislation would, among other things, provide protection for victims and training for staff. Gillibrand’s proposals also include spot checks on vessels where midshipmen are working.

“The scourge of sexual violence is plaguing this institution and its victims live in fear,” said Gillibrand, who visited the Long Island campus on Tuesday. “We owe a debt of obligation to provide safe campuses.”

As CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, among the 900 midshipmen training to protect America’s marine transportation, some report a troubling tradition.

Gillibrand pointed to a recent survey conducted by the school that found in the 2015 academic year, at least 17 percent of its female midshipmen were sexually assaulted on campus. The same survey found 2 percent of male midshipmen also reported being sexually assaulted.

“It’s a wakeup call. Those numbers really demonstrate we have a problem,” Co-Executive Director, The Safe Center, Cynthia Scott said.

Experts believe a ‘don’t tell’ culture is being fueled by fear and bullying.

“Those numbers are in line with what we are seeing nationally. The problem is these students here don’t have the same protections that other campuses have,” Anthony Zenkus said.

Gillibrand’s plan also includes emergency satellite phones for cadets at sea.

“If it’s your son or daughter who is sexually assaulted on a ship at sea they can call home and get off that ship,” she said.

Part of the problem is that the Merchant Marine Academy falls into an enforcement no man’s land. It’s not under the DOD or Title IX which governs enforcement at civilian college campuses.

CBS2 was not able to interview midshipmen, but alumni have denied a culture of rampant sexism. One neighbor remembers when it became the first service academy to admit women.

“You definitely wouldn’t expect because of the discipline you expect out of the troopers, that’s a problem,” Dick Weiss said.

The academy has suspended a program that allows cadets to earn credits for internships on commercial vessels amid concerns about sexual abuse and bullying at sea and on campus.

Separate reviews of abuse allegations are underway.

Late Tuesday, the Superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy said they are working to help build a climate of inclusion for all — on campus, and at sea.

“The United States Merchant Marine Academy is committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment for all Midshipmen. Today’s visit with Senator Gillibrand provided USMMA senior staff and Midshipmen an opportunity to discuss the world class education provided by the USMMA, some of the challenges we currently face, and our work to build a climate of inclusion for all on campus and at sea,” Superintendent, RADM James A. Helis, said in a statement.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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