News 12/Newsday report: Harassment in the Ranks - Allegations at Kings Point

Harassment in the Ranks

Harassment in the Ranks (1/13/17)

KINGS POINT - There are allegations of sexual assault and harassment at Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy.

Chelsea Tapper, 24, says she endured abuse while a student at the academy in Kings Point. She claims an upperclassman had it in for her, starting her freshman year.

“He constantly sexually harassed me -- he sexually assaulted me,” Tapper says. “He had grabbed my hand and pulled me and forced me to touch him.”

She says the harassment happened in public places, like at the gym while she was lifting weights.    

“Every time he came down from the pull up, his private parts were a couple of inches from my face,” Tapper says.

Tapper, who graduated in 2014, says nothing was done when she reported the incidents. She is telling her story during a troubling time for the 74-year-old institution. According to public records, the academy received 14 official reports of sexual assault from 2008 through 2015. Dozens of other students reported similar incidents in anonymous surveys done by the academy. Amid the allegations last year, the Merchant Marine Academy canceled part of its curriculum -- a year at sea on commercial vessels. 

But the decision to suspend the sea year resulted in backlash from other alumni and some parents of other students, who say there is not a culture of sexual assault and misconduct.

Andrea Morrison graduated from Kings Point in 2010, and is on the Alumni Association's Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment. She says she never experienced sexual harassment and believes the surveys given by the academy don't clearly define harassment and assault.

“I didn't see anything that would be construed as harassment,” Morrison says. “What someone might construe as harassment might just roll off someone else's back.”

The alumni association recently hired an outside company to investigate. It issued a preliminary report saying, "The culture at Kings Point is neither tolerant of nor conducive to sexual assault” and that "midshipmen were not worried about their personal safety while serving on commercial vessels during Sea Year.” But last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the school, released the results of its own study. It found the academy continues to struggle with a "lack of trust and a culture of fear" and doesn't have the programs and policies in place to address the situation.

Denise Krepp, the former chief attorney for the U.S. Maritime Administration, says she's been sounding the alarm for years. She says she was fired when she asked for the inspector general to investigate sexual assault claims. 

“They wanted to sweep it under the rug,” Krepp says. “The problem festered, more individuals became victims, and more lives were ruined.”

As for Tapper, she says things must change. 

“If someone is coming forward with a story of sexual assault or harassment, and they're the victim, believe them,” Tapper says. “Just because it didn't happen to you, doesn't mean it didn't happen.”

News 12 Long Island reached out to the U.S. Maritime Administration regarding this story. A spokeswoman said the organization declined to comment.

Newsday will also have a report on this story in this Sunday's paper.

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