7 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen won't graduate amid probe

KINGS POINT, N.Y. (AP) - The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is not permitting seven members of the men's soccer team to graduate with their class this weekend amid an investigation into possible sexual harassment, a congressman said Tuesday.

The revelation comes as the military service academy outside New York City has struggled with allegations of sexual abuse, harassment, and bullying. Last year, a program that places academy midshipmen on commercial vessels was temporarily suspended over concerns that students were being victimized.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the academy's Board of Visitors, a congressional oversight panel, said he learned of the investigation involving the soccer team about 10 days ago. He said he did not have specific details about what happened or when.

The academy's superintendent, Rear Admiral James Helis, sent an email to students and faculty last week about the suspension, according to Newsday, which acquired a copy of the email.

Helis said the investigation is being conducted by the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Merchant Marine Academy is the only service academy under the jurisdiction of the DOT; the other four are run by the Defense Department.

Officials at the Transportation Department and the Merchant Marine Academy did not immediately comment.

It was not clear what impact the suspension would have on the soccer team since the team plays in the fall. Its record last season was 13-5-2, according to the NCAA. A more immediate impact is on seven members of the team, who will not be permitted to graduate when the academy holds its commencement ceremonies Saturday. None of those involved have been identified.

A study commissioned this year by the DOT found the academy has a culture of fear marked by a sense of victimhood and "us vs. them" mindset regarding sexual assault and harassment.

The study was ordered after the DOT halted a program in 2016 that places cadets on one-year internships working on commercial vessels. It came amid concerns about sex abuse and harassment within the Sea Year program.

The internship program, considered one of the unique educational training aspects at the 900-member academy on Long Island Sound, resumed this spring after the academy received assurances from operators of commercial vessels that they were taking steps to prevent harassment and abuse.

"Unfortunately, at almost every school there can be an incident," said King, a Long Island Republican. "What's most important is how it is addressed. This seems to be being taken very seriously by Kings Point and the DOT."