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Sex harassment and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

The midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy march in formation just like those at U.S military service academies even though it's run by the Transportation Department. According to its own website, the academy turns out male and female officers of "exemplary character" to serve in the commercial and military transport industry.

Like all the U.S. service academies, the school draws students from across the country, and because it's a federal facility, it is subject to the same government rules against sexual harassment. Effectively, the students are federal employees and have the same rights as other federal workers.

How big an issue sexual harassment may be at the school seems to depend on who's speaking. High-level officials in the Obama administration say there's a culture at the academy exists that allows instances of harassment and assault. Citing data and research from focus groups, the head of the Transportation Department said conditions are worse at this academy than at any of the service schools. Earlier this year, the secretary suspended the school's at-sea training program for the sake of student safety.

That is not sitting well with the academy's alumni association. It says the year-at-sea training is something that sets the academy apart from similar state-run schools, and alumni group members are pushing to have the program restored. Critics admit harassment is an issue that needs attention, but suggest that it's being used as part of an effort to shut down the school completely.

The administration denies that. Meanwhile, school leadership says it's exploring what it can do to protect personnel better.

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