Preface- I don’t have an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused midshipman in the incident I am writing about. This column is about the undeniably poor judgement of the Superintendent in adjudicating the incident.
Should a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipman who the Academy Superintendent personally found guilty of committing a serious sexual assault be permitted to (a) return to the Academy, where he might prey on someone else; (b) ultimately graduate from the Academy and obtain a US Coast Guard license, which might enable to him to prey on a shipmate; and (c) receive a commission in the US Navy?
Superintendent James A. Helis has preached that there is “zero tolerance” for sexual assault/sexual harassment (“SASH”) at the Academy and has repeatedly stated that even a single sexual assault is one too many. And, with Helis already under the microscope for, amongst other leadership failures, poor performance on SASH issues during his tenure as superintendent, I would have thought that the answer to the above question would be a resounding, “No.”
Inexplicably, it turns out that Helis thinks the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”
Last month, Helis found a midshipman guilty of sexual assault. It was a case of alleged date rape. According to my sources, prior to the alleged rape, at least two people, including another midshipmen, told the accused midshipman that the woman was too drunk to have sex and received his assurances that he was not going to try to have sex with her. Despite giving those assurances, the accused midshipman had sex with the woman; but, when accused of sexual assault by the woman, the midshipman said that the woman consented, that the woman was the aggressor, and that she was not too drunk to consent.
After presiding over a hearing at the Academy, with testimony from eleven people, Helis concluded that the midshipman was guilty.
And then Helis did the inexplicable. Instead of expelling the midshipman—someone Helis determined had committed date rape and thus was guilty of sexual assault—Helis simply delayed the midshipman’s graduation with a one year set-back. The individual Helis found guilty of sexual assault was essentially invited by Helis to return to the Academy next year to complete his studies and graduate.
To judge from the reaction I have been receiving privately, the Regiment is outraged and understandably confused. There are two overwhelming sentiments I keep hearing from the midshipmen: (1) “How could Helis let someone that he determined committed date rape back on campus?” and (2) “We have tried so hard to take ownership of the SASH issue and now the Superintendent does this?” With this one single action, Helis has completely undermined all of the hard work that has been done at the Academy, particularly the work by the midshipmen, to make solving SASH their issue.
It is important to note that the midshipman in question maintains that he is innocent and is challenging Helis’ decision in court. I read the court documents submitted by the accused and Helis, but I did not hear all of the evidence so I would not venture to opine one way or another on the question of guilt or innocence. But, that’s not the point. Helis heard the evidence and—rightly or wrongly—he concluded that the midshipman committed date rape. Once Helis reached that conclusion, it is unfathomable that he would allow the midshipman to return to campus.
Helis has been talking about SASH from almost his first day as Superintendent. But, under his watch, three successive Inspector General reports have come out over the last four years (2014, 2016 and 2018) criticizing this superintendent for the same thing each time: Failing to implement critical initiatives/milestones for dealing with SASH. As another example, Under Helis’ watch, critical positions such as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator position have gone unfilled for more than a year.
When Helis puts on his uniform and testifies before Congress, he talks a good talk, such as he did in Senate testimony on March 8, 2016, calling sexual assault and harassment unacceptable behaviors and claiming he will take “appropriate action in each reported case.” That is clearly NOT what happened in this case.
Apparently what comes from Helis’ mouth when he testifies to Congress, just like his invocation of “zero tolerance” and “one sexual assault is one too many,” is just words that he spouts for public consumption. Helis talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. The Academy’s motto is “acta non verba” (“deeds, not words”). Helis’ motto is the opposite: Verba non acta.
The midshipmen and the Academy need a leader who lives Kings Point’s motto.