Gillibrand seeks to protect U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets from sexual abuse, harassment

- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced legislation to make it easier for cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island, and other service academies to come forward if they are victims of sexual abuse or harassment.

"It's not okay to sexually assault a peer or a stranger. It's a crime," Gillibrand said. "The challenge for military service members is they don't have the same civil liberties that you and I have and the same criminal justice system."

The Washington Post recently spoke with Erika Lawson, a Merchant Marine Academy graduate who claims she was sexually assaulted by her chief during a port stop in 2012.

Officials say Year at Sea program is the most common time for assault, when men and women are unable to communicate with loved ones at home. The Academy has since suspended the program until it's safer for everyone. 

"What we're trying to put in place is basic protections so if it's your son or daughter who is sexually assaulted on a ship at seas that they can call home and get off that ship," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand is proposing to give midshipmen satellite phones, require spot checks for safety, provide special training, and more support to report these crimes.

"As we've done in the military we've made it a crime," Gillibrand said. "Here we've made it an honor code violation."

The most recent sexual harassment survey of midshipmen at the Merchant Marine Academy shows 63 percent of women and 11 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed, 17 percent of women said they have been sexually assaulted. But only one case was reported to academy officials.

"Rape culture is real. And we need to educate students as young as high school and middle school, is what we have programs for but even before that, on what boundaries are," said Anthony Zenkus, the director of education of The Safe Center LI. He said that many times students drop out because of the pressure.

This is the second year in a row Gillibrand is bringing the issue to the Senate. She promised to continue pushing for change.

The Merchant Marine Academy said in a statement that it is "committed to providing a safe and respectful learning environment for all midshipmen. Today's visit with Senator Gillibrand provided 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."

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