On a 1,000-foot cargo ship in the middle of the ocean, the 19-year-old student felt trapped. Trapped by the crew member she said sexually harassed and groped her, and trapped by the academy that sent her there, reports CNN.
The Sea Year
She still had at least 40 more days at sea. If she left the ship before completing “Sea Year,” a mandatory training program at the US Merchant Marine Academy where students are placed on commercial or government ships to gain “self-reliance,” she risked derailing her graduation and worried she would be shut out of a career in the shipping industry.
On top of all that, she had been drinking when the crew member touched her, and even though it was a single beer, she worried the school could use that to undermine her report and kick her out for violating the academy’s strict alcohol policy. The government covers the cost of tuition at the academy, and she feared she could owe hundreds of thousands of dollars if she were expelled or tried to leave.
So she stayed silent.
Sexual harassment victims
The woman, who graduated in 2016 and went on to work in the military, received permission from her supervisors to share her experience with CNN anonymously. She is hoping to become an attorney to represent sexual assault victims in the maritime industry.
She and others in the school community told reporters that sexual assault and harassment are disturbingly common at the academy, but a culture of fear has silenced victims for years. They spoke out in the wake of an explosive account from a current student who wrote that she was raped at sea in 2019 by her supervisor. As her allegations spread throughout the maritime industry and federal government last fall, lawmakers slammed the academy for failing to keep students safe. Government officials then temporarily suspended Sea Year and rolled out new safety measures for ship operators and the academy.
But this is not the first time the academy has promised to better protect students, and government data reveals how rarely alleged assailants have been held accountable both on campus and at sea, despite previous reforms. A CNN review of school policies, meanwhile, shows that victims still face significant barriers to reporting sexual assault and could jeopardize their education and careers by coming forward.
Founded during World War II, the prestigious Merchant Marine Academy sits on the north shore of Long Island in Kings Point, New York, directly across the sound from New York City.
Women were first admitted to the school in 1974, and the number of female students has been increasing over the years, to a record of 74, or just over 26%, in the class of 2023. But the school’s own reports and surveys show how difficult it is for female students to speak up when they routinely face misogyny, discrimination and abuse.
Even when they do, academy and government data show how rare repercussions are.
Of the 22 official reports of sexual assault received by the academy between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years, the most recent data available, four resulted in investigations at the school level. When alleged assaults occur on commercial ships during Sea Year, the school doesn’t have the authority to investigate unless both people involved were students.
And the official reports of sexual misconduct are just a fraction of the incidents that occur. When permitted to be anonymous in a 2018 survey, less than half of those who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact during the academic year said they officially reported the incidents.
‘They just don’t trust anybody’
Amid the historic buildings scattered across the 82-acre campus sits an old gray house, right next to the running track and an outdoor gym where students go in large groups to lift weights and socialize.
This is where academy officials took Michelle Underwood and told her she would be living when she was hired to head up the school’s sexual assault prevention efforts in 2017.
The school publicizes that the sexual assault response coordinator “lives on campus and is available 24/7 should anyone need assistance with reporting a sexual assault.” But Underwood knew as soon as she carted her luggage into the house that its high visibility would make it likely no student reporting misconduct would seek her out there.
She started working at the school not long after the infamous “Sea Year Stand Down” of 2016. That was the first time the academy suspended the sea training program amid reports of sexual assault and harassment at higher levels than any other federal service academy — prompting media coverage about the academy’s failures and specific sexual misconduct allegations. Before reinstating the program the following year, officials pledged to implement changes reflecting a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment.
Given the increased scrutiny, Underwood assumed the academy would be truly committed to creating a safer place for students, but she said it soon became clear this was not the case.
The office where she and other victim advocates worked sits in a highly trafficked location in the middle of campus as well. And while students can also either call a 24-hour phone line to make reports or request a meeting in their barracks, Underwood said the prospect of her walking down the hallway and arriving at a victim’s door was just as mortifying. As a result, she resorted to finding a dark alley off campus where she would walk at night with the few students who did come to her to talk.
Both were substantiated, she said. The academy declined to comment.
The accidental advocate
An academy graduate and merchant mariner himself, 39-year-old Ryan Melogy never imagined he would become a one-man watchdog for the maritime industry.
Then, one day in early September last year, he received a message from a current student at the US Merchant Marine Academy. The woman wrote, in painstaking detail, how she was repeatedly sexually harassed and eventually raped at sea by her boss in 2019 when she was 19 years old.
She described waking up to find blood on her sheets after being pressured to take repeated shots of alcohol the previous night, and said that since returning to campus, she learned of nine other female students at the academy who said they had also been raped during their Sea Year.
At the end of her message to Melogy she wrote, “You can publish this.”
Under the pseudonym “Midshipman X,” Melogy posted the woman’s account, which would go on to spark the current reckoning inside the academy and industry.
Melogy knew firsthand the consequences of reporting sexual assault.
When Melogy discovered, years later, that the crew member he accused of misconduct had been promoted, he said he finally decided to take his allegations to the agency himself. The Coast Guard launched a criminal investigation in 2019, finding evidence corroborating Melogy’s allegations, records show. Nonetheless, Melogy said, nothing happened to him and more students were sent to train on a ship where the man worked.
In an effort to hold the federal government — and perpetrators — accountable, Melogy started his blog, Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy and posted about his own case. Soon, he said other students came to him with new allegations and information about the man Melogy said groped him and others.
As the evidence mounted, the Coast Guard filed a complaint against the alleged abuser in 2020, seeking to suspend or revoke his mariner credentials. More than six years after coming forward, Melogy is awaiting the final determination. The Coast Guard did not comment on the case.
‘Critical we get this right’
When Midshipman X’s account made its way to officials at the Maritime Administration, they knew they needed to act quickly.
Under pressure from lawmakers demanding that students be kept off ships until they were safe, the agency halted Sea Year, a decision it told students was “one of the most difficult we have faced.”
Then a top-to-bottom review of academy policies began and the agency solicited input from students, employees, ship operators and others in the maritime industry to figure out how to move forward.
In December, almost three months after Midshipman X spoke up, the agency rolled out a series of reforms it hopes will be the first step in this process. Students will be given satellite phones while at sea, for example, and a new alcohol amnesty policy states that victims, bystanders and witnesses won’t get in trouble if alcohol or drug use policies were violated at, or near, the time of an alleged assault.
Ship operators, meanwhile, must meet a number of requirements before they are allowed to carry students during Sea Year, such as prohibiting crew members and cadets from entering each other’s rooms and immediately reporting any incidents of sexual misconduct to the school if the ship is carrying an academy student, whether or not the student was involved.
Students also enter the broader industry as soon as they graduate, and Midshipman X wrote in a November blog post that more needs to be done to address the “toxic culture of unpunished sexual harassment and sexual assault that plagues the U.S. maritime industry.”
Lawmakers proposed legislation last fall aimed at addressing sexual assault both within the industry and specifically at the academy, though its future is uncertain. Underwood, the school’s former sexual assault response coordinator, said she was heartened by this bill but that more avenues are still needed for victims to report sexual assault to someone outside the academy given the distrust of school officials.
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