Former USMMA student, alleging sexual assault, set to pursue $5 million in suit

Former USMMA student, alleging sexual assault, set to pursue $5 million in suit
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been the subject of a federal investigation into a sexual assault that allegedly occurred on a soccer team bus. (Photo from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy website)

A lawyer for the victim of an alleged sexual assault by soccer players on a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy team bus filed a federal tort claim against the two federal agencies overseeing the academy, according to court papers, seeking $5 million for personal injuries.

Thomas Grasso, who is representing “John Doe” in the case, filed the claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Maritime Administration, which directly oversees the academy.

It claims negligence on the part of the two federal agencies and the Kings Point-based academy, as well as the men’s soccer coaches and members of the team for failing to “provide adequate sexual harassment and assault training and resources to students, faculty and staff.”

According to court papers, the victim – referred to as “John Doe” and “claimant” – was being yelled at on a soccer team bus on the way to a tournament. Then, after being slapped by a banana in the face and throwing it behind him, the victim went to the back of the bus to seniors who he thought wanted to have a chat with him.

But they shoved him to the ground, pulled his shorts and boxers down, and tried to shove a banana and possibly hands into his anus and privates, the victim wrote in a statement to the academy before his resignation from the school, while something was being poured on him – possibly urine.

Then, after a “few minutes of struggling,” the victim said he ran back to his seat as “the seniors tried shoving their fingers in my butt as I ran by.”

“Their excuse to me later was, ‘It happens to every plebe,’” the victim said in the statement. “As soon as I got off the bus at the hotel I was told how bad I smelled and was not spoken to by anyone.”

The victim, court documents allege, had also faced systematic harassment prior to the incident relating to his home state of West Virginia with associates alleging he’d slept with family members. Midshipmen also wrote “derogatory personal remarks” on his desk and on a whiteboard outside his room, the court papers continue, with the coaches doing nothing to stop it.

Grasso signed the document on April 9 and said he got confirmation of its receipt by the agencies on Monday, April 16.

Shaun Hogan, the attorney for five of the soccer players, said his clients received the federal notice of the claim, “categorically deny” the accusations and that there are “numerous problems with the allegations set forth there.”

“I’m confident that my clients are not guilty of any of the allegations that are alleged against them,” Hogan said on Monday.

In an interview Grasso, a 1991 graduate of the academy, said there is a “very well documented history, unfortunately,” of harassment at the school in government and newspaper reports.

But Grasso hadn’t seen any incidents regarding its sports teams before this case, he said, and he believes there may be many other victims.

“In all this, I hope we achieve some proper change and the students are properly looked after and the victims are properly looked after,” Grasso said. “Having talked to him and his parents … the impact on the family is huge. I feel that’s something that needs to be said.”

The incident in question has been the subject of a Department of Justice investigation, officials told the congressional Board of Visitors overseeing the academy in November.

The seven members of the USMMA soccer team named in the case had also been barred from graduating in June last year because of the investigation, which in turn prompted the students to sue the school, U.S. Department of Transportation and Rear Adm. James Helis, the school superintendent, in federal court.

In that suit, the students claimed their right to due process had been violated and denied all the charges levied against them.

Ultimately, the students were allowed to walk during graduation. After private executive board meetings, the midshipmen were able to receive their degrees and licenses.

That suit was ultimately dismissed, according to court papers filed last week.

Hogan said the withholding of their diplomas was an issue “thrust upon them right before they were to graduate.”

The school’s soccer team, which had been suspended because of the investigation that began in the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General, has also been reinstated.

Grasso also sent a letter to the Board of Visitors and Department of Transportation requesting they raise the issue of sexual assault at a meeting and further investigate the allegations.

Grasso said this letter was addressed at the Board of Visitors meeting on Monday, where Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the allegations were “graphic and stunning” and asked whether the coaches were still involved with the team.

According to Grasso,  Helis said the coaches were still on staff but the deputy commandant was now involved in coaching the soccer team – something he feels is “highly unusual.”

Grasso said the other steps the school is taking like adding victim advocates, adding ways to report sexual assault and harassment, expanding the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office and fostering the “Be KP” program piloted by midshipman Liz Grove, are encouraging.

“I think they’re coming to terms and accepting that there’s a problem and rightly, it is a culture problem,” Grasso said. “I think they’re addressing it correctly, but unfortunately, you have a lot of damage left in the wake that has to be dealt with.”

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