The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Merchant Marine midshipmen endure rough waters as sexual misconduct roils their ranks

Midshipmen walk to class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. ( (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the views of Charles Hill, a former director of the school’s national alumni foundation. This story has been corrected.

KINGS POINT, N.Y. — They call it the “safe word.”

It’s the secret code that cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy are advised to use if things get really rough during their year-long shipboard training on merchant vessels thousands of miles from shore, or at ports far from home. Women — and men, in some cases — can use it as a fail-safe if the lewd comments and unwanted advances from fellow sailors escalate to something worse. The government will bring them ashore.

But like many efforts by this federal service academy to confront inappropriate behavior, the safe word has not worked.

It was “goldfish” in 2012, the year Erika Lawson, an engine cadet on a commercial ship for what is known as “sea year,” was pushed against the back seat of a taxi and groped by the chief mate to force her to kiss him. She tried to push him away.

Lawson was 19 and didn’t use the safe word — provided by administrators — to email or phone the school. She was 7,810 miles from shore, in port in Saipan in the North Pacific.

Few cases like this are ever reported. But the Merchant Marine Academy has the highest rate of sexual assault and harassment of any U.S. military school. While the school received just one report of sexual assault in the 2014-2015 academic year, student surveys taken by the government reveal that 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men experienced unwanted advances or other sexual harassment. And 17 percent of women and 2 percent of men endured some kind of sexual assault, defined as unwanted contact, from groping to rape.

Those numbers exceed the combined rates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval, Air Force and Coast Guard academies, where 48 percent of women and 10 percent of men described sexual harassment in similar surveys. For both genders, sexual assault rates were half that of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, a forgotten outpost on Long Island Sound east of New York City, the first of the service academies to admit women 42 years ago but which today trains the fewest. Today, about 15 percent of Kings Point students are women.

For years these alarming statistics were ignored by the federal government. But with the school’s accreditation threatened and facing growing scrutiny from Congress, the academy’s advisory board and its federal watchdog, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in June suspended Kings Point’s most prominent feature, a grueling year at sea where midshipmen apprentice on large deep-sea ships.

Erika Lawson, a recent graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, was sexually assaulted during her training year at sea. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

It’s the first time a federal service academy has been in danger of losing its accreditation.

“In our judgment, we could no longer continue to send them to sea with the status quo,” Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the school superintendent, said in an interview in his office on Long Island Sound. Citing rising sexual misconduct both at sea and on campus, school leaders say they won’t reinstate sea year until midshipmen are safe.

They decided to bring home 116 cadets who were already at sea. “This wasn’t a problem we could fix as we go,” said Helis, a retired Army colonel hired in 2012 as the academy’s fourth superintendent in eight years.

In this atmosphere, victims have been afraid to report unwanted advances.

Back on campus in New York, it took Lawson more than a year to file a “restricted report,” which informed the school that she had a bad experience. There were no names and no investigation.

“I feel like you’re taught there to keep your head down and just get through it,” said Lawson, 24 and working as a third assistant engineer on a cruise ship out of New York Harbor. “The sexual assault policies are a total joke. Everybody would just snicker and laugh during the training.”

Right after the assault, she wrote the chief mate a note telling him she felt violated. He slipped $200 under her door — and kept working, she said. 

“I’m tired of people saying this doesn’t happen, or that I have to suck it up and act like a man,” Lawson said.

The Washington Post does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but several agreed to speak on the record to bring public attention to what they believe is a serious problem at the academy.

The school is a military and civilian hybrid whose glory days came during World War II. Its heavily unionized fleet is dwindling amid growing automation and competition from foreign ships, which transport goods for less than American vessels.

Kings Point trains about 1,000 students tuition-free for four years, including up to 330 days at sea. Students are nominated by their members of Congress. Graduates are licensed by the Coast Guard and must work five years in the maritime industry or eight in the Navy Reserve, unless they go on active duty.

The sexual misconduct is a black mark on the increasing efforts of the Obama administration to curtail harassment and assault on college campuses and in the military. Vice President Biden, who is leading that effort, has said that top-ranking government officials won’t visit institutions that don’t take the issue seriously, and even suggested that federal money could be in jeopardy for schools that don’t comply.

Yet the problem has been pervasive in some corners of the government itself, with revelations in January of years of sexual harassment in the National Park Service. The issue is well known in the military, which has developed new policies to encourage victims to file formal complaints.

Under pressure from Congress, Kings Point hired its first sexual assault coordinator four years ago and beefed up online and face-to-face prevention training. But officials were shocked to find so few victims reporting when surveys told them otherwise.

Helis said the prevention training and reporting systems are not effective enough, and faulted the leadership curriculum. Furthermore, lawmakers on the Board of Visitors are so concerned they pushed legislation sponsored by Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) through the Senate in July requiring more rigorous reporting and training policies. The legislation also urges the academy to consider alternatives to sea year.

Kings Point has been troubled by years of mismanagement, high staff turnover and leadership turmoil and is effectively in receivership, with Washington controlling its budget, hiring and other operations. Some graduates accuse the Obama administration of coddling students and inflating the extent of sexual misconduct.

But the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — which does 10-year accreditation reviews for the U.S. Education Department — placed the Merchant Marine Academy on warning in June, citing failures of leadership and governance, administration and student services. The commission described a “campus climate and incidence of sexual harassment and sexual assault that have been a serious and recognized problem for over 10 years.”

“The pervasiveness of the incidents is perceived as undeniable and disturbing,” the report said, criticizing the academy’s efforts to prevent misconduct as “insufficient and ineffective.”

Helis and Maritime Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, whose small agency at Transportation oversees the academy, said a “steady accumulation of evidence” led to the decision to cancel sea year, setting off a civil war with parents and a vocal group of older graduates who say that the school is overreacting. Some parents are demanding that their sons and daughters return to sea.

Midshipmen describe abuse as part of the culture at sea, where women were once said to bring bad luck because they distracted sailors.

In interviews, 11 recent Kings Point graduates and current midshipmen, including two men, said they or someone they knew had experienced bullying and inappropriate sexual behavior at sea and on campus. Some shrugged it off and told the offenders to get lost. Others were devastated.

Maritime has always been a man’s industry of oil tankers and container ships, where recent graduates and Kings Point leaders describe how crews at sea for months at a time frequent brothels when they’re in port, “porn night” below deck is a common fixture, and female midshipmen have to sit on the chief engineer’s lap before he will sign off on their apprenticeships.

“I’ve had crew members come to my door at night to try to kiss me,” recalled Meghan Sadowski, who graduated in 2012.

She said midshipmen are sent from the classroom onto ships with older men who often do not treat them as co-workers. The students “feel they’re not empowered to speak up,” she said.

During her fourth year at Kings Point, she led a successful effort to get locks put on the barrack doors because she felt midshipmen were not safe at night.

Some of the behavior at sea carries over to the New York campus, Jaenichen said. Midshipmen return from sea year with “a new bias that shifted their thought process to sexist behavior.”

Until last year, the academy employed a former Marine on the faculty who called female midshipmen “cookies in my cookie jar” and knocked on their doors at night, four recent graduates said.

Helis confirmed that the instructor “no longer works here.” He declined further comment.

“The merchant marine is 20 years behind what we experience as gender equality,” said Ali Denning, a 2012 graduate who is a marine inspector for the Coast Guard.

Denning said she tried to “educate” sailors who would comment on her appearance or question whether she was up to the job.

“They told us, ‘Try your best to get through it, so you can pave the way for women behind you,’ ” she recalled of her instructors and fellow midshipmen.

Some, including members of Congress, have questioned the need for a costly federal school when there are six state academies.

The shipping industry — which hosts hundreds of Kings Point cadets for sea year on its vessels — and merchant marine unions are working with the school to strengthen its training to prevent sexual offenses.

“The notion that it is hard to change the maritime culture — we don’t accept that,” said Michael Roberts, general counsel for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Crowley Maritime, which is leading the effort.

Although most companies “have mechanisms in place to deal with this,” some are better than others, Roberts said. “We recognize that the goal is zero tolerance and we’re prepared to step up.”

Rebekkah Stoeckler, a 2014 Kings Point graduate, the school culture is unforgiving to victims who come forward.

In her first year, she says she was assaulted by a popular midshipman assigned as her mentor. On a boat owned by the school, students were celebrating a sailing race and drinking. Stoeckler went below deck to lie down. The student pinned her to the bed and started to undress her. Another student stopped the assault.

Stoeckler said she went to the campus police, but her report was not kept confidential. After being told that she asked for the assault because she was drinking, she says, she was grounded on campus for six weeks.

She eventually withdrew her complaint. Now 25 and working on tugs and barges out of Houston, she said, “In hindsight, I was bullied into that decision and I wish I had had the courage to follow it through.”

Some angry parents and graduates are pushing back on the cancellation of sea year, even though the academy has found other training for students on Navy transport ships and ships used by state schools. They have launched a public-relations campaign on Facebook and in the trade press to stop the stand-down.

“It is not the same when a dozen or two cadets stand around on the bridge and watch the mate go about his duties,” said Terry Gray, who is on the parents association’s executive board. “All our midshipmen need to sail on commercial ships.”

The resistance is also coming from older female graduates, who were filmed in an online video clip saying they did not experience sexual misconduct during sea year. And it’s coming from alumni, like Charles Hill, a former head of the school’s national alumni foundation.

Hill acknowledged that sexual assault and harassment is a serious problem at the academy, but argued that misconduct is more likely to occur on campus than on the commercial vessels that host the Sea Year program.

“The sexual harassment issue has been around for years,” Hill said.