0 for 3: Helis again fails an independent review of his (poor) implementation of SASH procedures

At the request of Congress, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) has reviewed the progress — or lack of progress — shown by Superintendent James A. Helis and his administration in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment (“SASH”) issues at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The record is pitiful. If  Helis’ progress in implementing effective SASH prevention procedures was held to the same standard used to grade a midshipman’s sea project, it would get an F.  Instead, of giving Helis the F that he deserves, the OIG keeps giving him an incomplete.

Let’s start with the 2014 OIG report.  That report found that Helis had established 9 goals relating to SASH yet none of the 9 were complete. Indeed, the OIG determined that out of 32 action items needed to meet the 9 goals, Helis had not completed more than a third of those action items. (PDF p.10 of the report.) Moreover, the OIG observed that “two years after developing the SAPR [sexual assault prevention and response] program, USMMA cannot determine the program’s impact or effectiveness, despite assurances to Congress that a plan for measuring program effectiveness was in place.” (2014 Report, PDF p.9.)

The 2014 OIG report was concerned about the lack of progress the Academy was making in assessing the effectiveness of its efforts to combat SASH: “[N]early 6 years after passage of the Duncan Hunter Act, USMMA still cannot accurately assess the current Academy climate or determine whether progress has been made to address sexual assault and harassment at the Academy. (2014 Report, PDF p.13.)

In 2016, OIG did an update assessment. I will focus on only one aspect of that update.  The Academy now had 44 action items to complete and had only completed 29 of them.  So instead of only 1/3 completed, the Academy now had 2/3 completed. I guess that was progress, but as the OIG Report makes clear, it was still woefully insufficient. Imagine turning in a sea project that was only 2/3 complete and arguing that it was better than the last one because the last one was only 1/3 complete.

In March 2018, the OIG came out with its latest assessment of Helis’ efforts to address SASH. This time, OIG specifically notes a leadership issue:

“The Academy also lacks a leadership oversight process to comprehensively track and address these recommendations and to ensure faculty and staff members are held accountable for incomplete item.”

(2918 Report, PDF p.8)

The OIG also found a stunning example of incompetence.  The Academy’s SASH reporting forms did not ask the name of the alleged perpetrator. As a result, the Academy had no way of tracking to see if it was receiving multiple reports regarding the same offender — important information to have in case there was a serial offender on the campus. 2018 Report, PDF p.27. On top of that, the SASH reports compiled by the Academy could lead to the wrong conclusion of, say, a high occurrence of harassment, when it was in fact repeated offenses by the same offender. There is no way to know – so the data is not just suspect, it is easily deceptive.

There are other important shortcomings noted:

  • “Specifically, because of the weaknesses in the SAPR program infrastructure, critical gaps remain in the areas of comprehensive prevention and evaluation. For example, the 16 SAPR program policies and procedures are primarily response focused; thus the Academy has not institutionalized prevention strategies.” (2018 Report, PDF p.7.)
  • “Furthermore, the Academy’s Sexual Assault Review Board (SARB)15—which was established in 2013 to provide executive oversight, procedural guidance, and feedback concerning the SAPR program—has not ensured consistent messaging on comprehensive prevention in the Academy’s policies and procedures. For example, SAPR policies include clear prohibitions against sexual assault and sexual harassment, but these are not reinforced in the Midshipmen Regulations, which govern the midshipmen’s daily lives.” (2018 Report, PDF p.7.)
  • In addition, the Academy’s procedures are not sufficient to evaluate the effectiveness of the SAPR program or its practices, because they do not establish a reliable methodology for collecting sexual harassment data or metrics to evaluate training outcomes, such as the extent to which an individual training resulted in behavior change. This is a problem that the OIG specifically found in 2014 as well.  (See the discussion of the 2014 Report, above.)

In 2018, the Academy had 138 recommendations relating to SASH (significantly higher than the past two OIG reports because of the extra focus being given to SASH issues).  However, it had only completed 62 (45%) of the recommendations. Once again, an incomplete.

There were other similarities between the 2018 Report and the 2014 Report other than described above. For example, compare the following recommendations from 2014 and 2018:

2014 2018
Develop a systematic recordkeeping system for sexual assault and sexual harassment reports and incidents and related training. 2014 Report, PDF p.18. Develop and implement a procedure for reporting, investigating, and responding to sexual harassment complaints. 2018 Report, PDF p.30.
Develop performance metrics for the USMMA SAPR program and its sexual harassment prevention activities and an internal mechanism to measure USMMA’s progress in meeting established program goals. 2014 Report, PDF p.17 Establish and formalize in policy or procedures methodologies to evaluate the effectiveness of the SAPR program and its practices, including metrics to evaluate training outcomes. 2018 Report, PDF p.30.

When Helis speaks to the Congressional Board of Visitors or testifies in Congress, he speaks in platitudes and makes it sound like he is doing everything he can to address SASH issues at the Academy.  The OIG Reports tell a very different story.

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