Commerce Committee Approves Bill to Address Sexual Misconduct in the Merchant Marine

December 15, 2021

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., today released the following statements after the committee approved the Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act. The legislation would strengthen Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) prevention, response, investigation, and accountability in the maritime industry and provide additional safeguards for the midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA).

“The Department of Transportation made a rash decision to pause Sea Year rather than directly address the scourge of sexual assault among midshipmen,” said Wicker. “This legislation would hold accountable those who commit these abhorrent acts and strengthen Academy programs and policies. I hope the Department follows through on its commitment to restart Sea Year so midshipmen can complete their training in time for graduation.”

“In light of the troubling allegations that recently surfaced at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, it is imperative that we do all that we can to protect students who have chosen the path of service and ensure they are able to continue their important work,” said Collins. “Our legislation, which has been advanced by the Senate Commerce Committee, would strengthen sexual violence prevention, response, investigation, and accountability measures to improve cadets’ safety. Congress must remain committed to reducing the instances of sexual assault at our service academies and providing appropriate care for victims.”

"Congress must act to confront the sexual harassment, sexual assault and violence that continues to plague both the maritime industry and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” said Gillibrand. “I am proud that the bipartisan Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act has now passed the Commerce Committee and is one step closer to becoming law. This important bill would strengthen measures relating to prevention, training, investigation and accountability and would give mariners and midshipmen more confidence in their safety." 

The Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act would:

Provide Accountability for SASH Offenders:

  • Give the Coast Guard authority to suspend or revoke a mariner’s license if the individual is found to have committed sexual harassment or sexual assault;
  • Include commission of sexual assault as an independent and explicit ground for suspension or revocation, and add sexual harassment as a new form of misconduct on which a license could be lost; and
  • Require the Maritime Administration and the Coast Guard to assess the applicability of the DoD’s Catch a Serial Offender program to the merchant marine, and, if so, how such a program would be implemented.   

Track incidents of SASH and collecting student feedback:

  • Establish a sexual assault and sexual harassment database at the USMMA to track reports of harassment and assault in a systematic way; and
  • Require exit interviews from students after Sea Year and include information from these exit interviews into the database.

Provide information, training, and resources to students:

  • Require the USMMA to create a training program specifically designed for midshipmen going onboard ships, which would focus on the full continuum of SASH in the at-sea environment, including prevention, identification, reporting, and available support;
  • Codify the position of Special Victims Counsel at the USMMA; and
  • Allow the Department of Transportation the authority for direct hire of employees of the SASH office, to prevent unacceptably long gaps in staffing.

Set up a framework to improve the USMMA’s SASH policies and procedures:

  • Establish a Sexual Assault Advisory Council, with members including USMMA Alumni and SASH experts, to provide feedback to the USMMA for improvements on SASH policy and implementation; and
  • Require the USMMA to promulgate a student support plan aimed at improving midshipmen well-being by improving the climate and sharing available mental health resources at the Academy.

Click here to read the bill as filed.
Click here to read the Wicker substitute (as modified).