Longstanding concerns over how the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy responds to sexual assault and harassment are among the issues raised in the academy’s process of renewing accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“The pervasiveness of sexual harassment on campus must be addressed as a pressing and substantial concern that has fostered a hostile environment for many cohorts of midshipmen,” according to a May report by outside reviewers for the Middle States Commission. “The institution must implement specific steps to build a climate of mutual respect and trust among midshipmen, faculty, and staff with respect to sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

The report released by the academy this week found the academy meets nine of 14 standards for accreditation. Reviewers recommended improvements to meet all standards, including better budgeting and financial controls, and improving governance structure and administration.

Issues of harassment are covered under the report’s standard for student support services. The report was completed just weeks before academy officials announced June 16 that the traditional Sea Year assignments – when midshipmen go out to work and learn for about 300 days on U.S-flag vessels – was being suspended because of concerns over harassment.

The report notes harassment has been a longstanding concern at the Kings Point, N.Y., campus as well.

“The campus climate and incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been a serious and recognized problem for over 10 years … The pervasiveness of the incidents is perceived as undeniable and disturbing,” the reviewers reported. “While the Academy has consistently recognized the serious problem that it faces and has officially recorded it, the efforts in place to prevent new recurrences have been insufficient and ineffective.”

Most incidents are not reported, and evidence of the problem comes through confidential surveys of midshipmen, the reviewers said. The academy has tried to take corrective action, they noted, but “the initiatives in place have been inconsistent, not fully supported, and ineffective.”

The reviewers recommend mandated training for all academy personnel to understand and prevent sexual assault, harassment and stalking, and better education on institutional policies and how midshipmen can respond and report on incidents.

In general terms the reviewers called for the academy to “take demonstrable steps in preparation for and upon return from the Sea Year experience.” Following a June 24 meeting with some 90 representatives from the industry, U.S. Maritime Administration and academy officials say they are now reviewing an industry proposal to deal with harassment of midshipmen.

Among its positive findings the review gives high marks to USMMA educational offerings and to the Sea Year experience.

Survey and interviews showed “the Sea Year is perceived as a rich and valuable experience,” the reviewers wrote. “It is considered an invaluable and unique chance to have ‘hands on’ experience that enriches the portfolio of skills of the midshipmen.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.