"Toxic culture" at US academy where Maersk cadets trained

The two women suing the Danish shipping company due to sexual assaults aboard a Maersk vessel, were educated at the US Merchant Marine Academy. A ”toxic culture” dominates at the school, but it rarely leads to litigation, according to CNN. The academy declines to comment on the Maersk case.

Photo: Jens Dresling

US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) is one of the US’ most prestigious schools for educating future officers, ship engineers and captains for both state vessels and the commercial merchant fleet.

But the USMMA is also playing a central part in the lawsuit, which two women – formerly under education at the USMMA as cadets – have filed against Maersk.

”There is a toxic culture,” says an anonymous employee to the CNN.

The statement stems from an article in February this year called ”Culture of fear at Merchant Marine Academy silences students who say they were sexually harassed and assaulted”.

According to the anonymous employee, the USMMA has throughout the last year received reports of seven students that have been sexually assaulted in relation to education program Sea Year.

They don’t want to betray the academy and hurt their careers

anonymous usmma employee to cnn

None of the seven students have, however, taken any formal action because ”they don’t want to betray the academy and hurt their careers,” says the employee to the CNN.

The two women, who have just sued Maersk in the US, were interns aboard a Maersk vessel under the USMMA’s Sea Year program as part of their education to become ship cadets.

The women accuse the Danish container carrier for having failed to live up to its obligations and responsibility when the women – as stated in the lawsuit – were subjected to, respectively, rape and gross sexual harassment.

This occurred at the same Maersk ship – Alliance Fairfax – in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

The USMMA’s Sea Year program is a public education, where the two female plaintiffs had to complete an internship in order to finish their education.

22 cases of ”sexual assault”

Cadets have their internship at sea on board ships from carriers such as Maersk, and for this carriers receive subsidies.

The CNN reveals that sexual harassment takes place both at the USMMA and on board ships with interns as victims. But the incidents rarely lead to investigations or cases.

According to an anonymized investigation from 2018, less than half of those exposed to unwanted sexual contact in the course of the education reported the incidents.

According to the CNN, there have been 22 cases of ”sexual assault” at the USMMA in the school years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

Four cases led to investigations at a school level. In the course of the last five years, only one person, a merchant mariner, has been sanctioned for sexual harassment directed toward a student at sea, the US Coast Guard has told the CNN.

Coast Guard’s and carriers’ responsibility

If sexual offenses or assaults take place on commercial ships in relation to the Sea Year program, the USMMA has no mandate to interfere unless both parties are students.

With cases on ships, it is up to the specific carrier or the US Coast Guard to examine conditions.

The last two decades, there has only been one criminal case about sexual assault involving a student from the USMMA, the US Coast Guard confirms to the CNN.

In an interview Tuesday with ShippingWatch, Hope Hicks – one of the two female plaintiffs, and who has chosen to come forth by name – leveled harsh criticism at the USMMA, the maritime industry and Maersk.

There is a long history [...] in my academy for making it very difficult for victims to come forward

hope hicks

“There is a long history in the maritime industry and in my academy for making it very difficult for victims to come forward. There is a lot of victim blaming. People don’t know the right procedure to report. You are going to get blacklisted,” said Hicks to ShippingWatch.

”There is also a history of victims of harassment getting kicked out of school for reporting. It is totally valid to be scared.”

USMMA shut down

In 2016, the cadet program at the USMMA was temporarily shut down by the US transport secretary at the time, Anthony Fox, due to several allegations of sexual assault/sexual harassment (SASH) cases in relation to cadet internships.

The program was reopened in 2017 with tightened obligations and procedures for protecting cadets on ships.

But last year, the program was subject to attention once again when Hicks anonymously shared her story. Maersk commenced an investigation, while five seafarers were suspended. After this, the Sea Year program was shut down once again.

The five employees were later fired, but Maersk could not find proof of rape in their investigation as it had not been possible to speak to the involved parties.

School won’t respond to criticism

Hicks said Wednesday that Maersk’s dismissals are far from enough.

“No. I don’t think they did enough. Even if someone gets fired from Maersk, they can sail on another ship. Nothing can stop them from finding another job, where they can go be a perpetrator again.”

Maersk acknowledged in 2016 already that there was a problem with the potentially high number of harassment cases and the relatively few that were reported in the SASH system. This is evident from a letter from Maersk to the USMMA Board of Visitors as reported by ShippingWatch.

Maersk declines to comment on the case and the lawsuit besides the comment provided by the carrier Tuesday.

ShippingWatch has asked the USMMA for a comment on Hicks’ allegations.

”We have no comments on the ongoing legal cases,” writes USMMA Director of External and Congressional Affairs George H. Rhynedance in an email to ShippingWatch.

English edit: Kristoffer Grønbæk

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