US federal officials are increasingly taking an interest in the rape allegations at the US Merchant Marine Academy, eliciting statements of support from groups like the academy's alumni association.

But some of those same groups remain silent on their previous denials that sexual assault was an issue at all.

Ahead of a 21 October meeting with industry stakeholders, the US Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation announced it would be adding #womenbelongatsea to all its social media posts in support of Midshipman X — the anonymous academy senior who detailed her rape on board a Maersk Line ship in an online post last month.

"Earlier this month, the [alumni association] was made aware of a deeply disturbing account posted online in which a member of the [academy] class of 2022 described a rape that occurred while fulfilling her Sea Year commitment aboard a Maersk vessel in 2019," association president James Tobin wrote in a statement.

"If one of us is hurting, we all feel her pain."

Midshipman X's post has garnered much attention both inside of the US shipping industry and out.

In addition to the meeting, which brought together transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, his deputy Polly Trottenberg, acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley and representatives from industry, labour and education, several elected officials have spoken on the need for change in the industry.

It is the second time in the last five years the academy has been embroiled in a sexual assault controversy. In 2016, the federally-backed university suspended its Sea Year programme, where students are placed aboard merchant ships for training purposes, over allegations of sexual assault.

Then, the alumni association commissioned a study that found there was "zero evidence" that Sea Year was unsafe, while calling into question the methodology the federal government used to evaluate the climate at the school.

The study said there was a tight-knit family culture at the school, not one of dominance and control that would foster sexual harassment.

TradeWinds reached out to Tobin this week seeking comment on the 2016 study, but he did not respond.

Nor did American Maritime Officers president Paul Doell, who on behalf of his union and three others, penned an essay calling the suspension of Sea Year to be a "bizarre" and "peculiar" threat to the US-flagged fleet.

He said sexual assault, abuse and harassment were unacceptable, but that cancelling Sea Year imperils jobs for professional mariners, sends the message careers at sea are dangerous and could whittle away Congressional support for the industry.

"Are you insulted by the official assertion that sexual assault and harassment are preferred pastimes for American merchant mariners? Are you offended by the notion that you as seagoing professionals can't distinguish between right and wrong, and that you're incapable of self-control and mutual respect?" Doell wrote. "You should be."

Officials, lawmakers take notice

In addition to Midshipman X's account, TradeWinds reported a Maersk Line captain could lose his captain's licence over sexual misconduct toward a second mate and two academy cadets and that a former Maritime Administration attorney said she was fired when she tried to start an investigation into sexual assault at the academy in 2011.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons 2.0

Last week, Senator Maria Cantwell and Representatives Peter DeFazio and Salud Carbajal issued statements calling on the Department of Transportation to look into the issue of sexual assault.

Cantwell chairs the Senate's Commerce Committee, while DeFazio leads the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Carbajal runs that committee's Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee.

In the Department of Transportation's meeting, the agency said participants committed to creating a safe environment, from the time mariners are cadets to when they retire.

They also were said to have said statements of zero tolerance are a starting point, but that more work needed to be done to change the culture.

"For far too long, sexual assault in the maritime shipping industry has been an open secret, affecting the industry as a whole, and the US merchant marine in particular," Buttigieg said.

"It's critical — but not enough — for a company, agency, or government to say that there is zero-tolerance for harassment and assault. It's critical — but not enough — to say that allegations are taken seriously, or to point to training and reporting systems that are in place."

US Merchant Marine Academy and Sea Year

The US Merchant Marine Academy has about 1,045 students.

Along with the Military Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy and Coast Guard Academy, Kings Point is one of five federally funded service academies. Students must obtain a merchant marine officer’s licence before graduation and maintain it for the next six years while serving five years as an officer or in another maritime-related job. Students also join the Navy Reserve.

During Sea Year, students spend parts of their second and third years at the academy on board US-flagged ships.

The academy pitches the programme as key for student development, providing the opportunity to learn in a hands-on environment while developing self-discipline, confidence and human relations skills while sailing the globe.

Source: USMMA