KINGS POINT, N.Y.—The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is in turmoil over sexual abuse and bullying concerns that have led to the temporary shutdown of its premier training program—one that sends cadets out on working vessels for a year at sea.
Some parents, alumni and maritime unions contend the decision to halt the program while such allegations are investigated was made hastily and without solid evidence of abuse. And they say it deprives cadets of the most valuable part of their education, actually toiling on container ships, oil tankers, passenger liners and barges.
But administrators of the 900-student, taxpayer-financed service academy aren't shrinking from criticism. They say a full review is underway, but it could be months before the program, called Sea Year, resumes in earnest.
"The balance here is between sailing on commercial vessels for the training value and the environment and the threats that they face," said Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy's superintendent. "To me, it's not a close call."
Government sex abuse surveys, interviews with midshipmen returning from Sea Year and feedback from faculty fueled Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's decision last June to order the stand-down, Helis said.
"It isn't a particular number, a particular survey that led to this decision," Helis said. "It's been the accumulation of evidence from different sources, from different views taken at the academy that all led us to the same conclusion: That we had a significant challenge with the climate at sea. And not just with sexual assault, sexual harassment, but bullying, hazing, coercion and retaliation."
One graduate, Erika Lawson, told The Washington Post she was groped by a chief mate in the back seat of a taxi in Saipan during her Sea Year in 2012. Lawson said it took her more than a year to tell school authorities she had a bad experience. She said there was no investigation.
"I feel like you're taught there to keep your head down and just get through it," Lawson told the newspaper. She did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.
A sophomore midshipman, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals, recounted an incident on campus last year in which a female instructor ordered two female cadets to pour water on their shirts as a test to see if they were see-through.
"Upperclass midshipmen filed a report, the girls filed a report, and this officer is still around months later," the midshipman said.
Helis said the academy does not comment about investigations or employee discipline.
Several female graduates of the academy now working in the maritime industry disputed allegations of widespread abuse on commercial vessels.
"I just got off a ship," said Julie Maggart, a 1987 graduate from Lancaster, Ohio. "To say the environment is scary aboard commercial vessels is a bunch of bull in my opinion."
Catie Gianelloni, a 2009 graduate from Bel Air, Maryland, said sometimes being asked to perform strenuous or difficult tasks on board a vessel could be construed as bullying. "I just don't see it happening," she said, of alleged abuse.
Helis conceded there is scant evidence of abuse—only one case of sexual assault was reported in the 2014-15 academic year—but argued midshipmen fear recriminations for coming forward.
The Merchant Marine Academy, in Kings Point, New York, is on the Long Island Sound estate once owned by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler. It is one of five military service academies in the United States, and the only one under the direction of the Department of Transportation.
Graduates receive bachelor's degrees in marine engineering or marine transportation and a merchant marine officer's license, putting them in high demand by the industry. One recent survey put starting salaries for graduates at $77,900.
In return for their taxpayer-financed education, graduates are required to spend five years in the maritime industry and eight years in the U.S. Naval Reserve. About 25 percent satisfy their obligation with a five-year active duty military commission. There are currently 746 men and 168 women enrolled at Kings Point.
The leaders of four maritime unions wrote to the transportation secretary this month, arguing the shutdown was unwarranted and questioning whether it was a way to deflect attention from a warning that it is in danger of losing accreditation—the only service academy ever to face that potential.
"We are offended by the illogical, indefensible notion that inappropriate, even unlawful sexual behavior is rampant in the commercial U.S. merchant fleet," said leaders of the American Maritime Officers, Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, and the Masters, Mates & Pilots unions and the Seafarers International Union.
While the Sea Year shutdown goes on, cadets are earning credits aboard government vessels, which critics say is a weak substitute for the vigorous training on industry vessels.