DoD’s progress in reducing sexual assaults at military academies unclear

The number of reported sexual assaults declined at the Air Force Academy and West Point, and increased slightly at the U.S. Naval Academy. But DoD officials can...

A new report from the Pentagon finds overall reports of sexual assaults at the country’s three military academies declined during the most recent school year, but the Defense Department says it doesn’t have enough data to determine whether more or fewer sexual assaults are actually happening.

There were 70 reports of sexual assault involving cadets and midshipmen this past year, including 53 incidents that happened after the victims entered the service academies.

That total of 53 reports is down from 58 last year, and military officials said they could not determine whether the smaller number of reports reflected a smaller number of crimes.

In the much broader universe of the overall military, reports of sexual assault jumped by more than half during fiscal 2013 compared with the year before. But based partially on sweeping survey data, officials concluded that meant more victims felt comfortable coming forward, and not that there were more victims.

With regard to the academies, it’s harder to draw a conclusion either way, because during the past school year, DoD did not survey students to try to determine the current prevalence of sexual assault. Instead, the department conducted focus groups for the first time to try to gauge attitudes at all three academies.

“During these focus groups, participants said they believed that reports of sexual harassment or sexual assault would be taken seriously by academy leadership and dealt with appropriately. That’s good,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the new director of DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). “Cadets and midshipmen also identified peer pressure as a barrier to reporting. That’s not good.”

Incidents drop at the Army, Air Force

The Army and Air Force both saw their reported incidents drop during the 2012-2013 school year. There were 10 reported assaults at the Army’s West Point last year, compared to 15 the year before. The Air Force Academy dropped from 52 in 2012 to 45 last year.

The Naval Academy’s incidents grew from 13 in 2012 to 15 for the 2013 academic year.

DoD officials can’t develop accurate estimates of sexual assault at the academies year-to-year because surveys only are conducted every two years, but those higher numbers of reported assaults at the Air Force Academy don’t necessarily reflect more sexual assaults. DoD officials believe the Air Force has simply done a better job of fostering a climate that encourages victims to come forward.

“One of the things that the Air Force Academy does exceptionally well is they have a sexual assault response coordinator who is very well-known throughout the academy,” said Dr. Nate Galbreath of DoD’s SAPRO office. “She and her team work overtime in getting in front of the cadets. And just as an example of my experience with them, asking academy cadets at the Air Force, ‘If you needed to report a sexual assault, what would you do?’ Almost every single one of them, to a T, says, ‘Oh, I’d call 333-SARC.’ That’s her number. They all knew her by name, because she gets in front of them within the first few weeks that they’re there.”

The Pentagon says all three service academies are complying with DoD policy on sexual assault prevention and response, but it’s trying to promote that level of engagement as a best practice across the schools.

Climate change needed

The report also concluded that in all the schools, there is a cultural problem among the student bodies that helps to contribute both to assaults themselves and to victims and witnesses’ reticence to come forward and report the crimes.

Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, a deputy branch chief at the Defense Manpower Data Center, who led the focus group studies, said students reported a climate that fostered and tolerated sexism and sexual harassment.

“In terms of sexist behavior, the survey, which we conducted in 2012, has a few measures, sexual harassment being one of them. And that involves crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion,” she said “We also ask about sexist behaviors, and these would be verbal and nonverbal behaviors that would be insulting or offensive based on someone’s gender: ‘Women don’t belong at the academy,’ or similar type comments. The rates for crude and offensive behavior — this is your typical locker room talk — and for the sexist behavior, on the survey in 2012, were high, around 80 percent to 90 percent of women indicating that they had experienced that in the last 12 months. So when we went out to do the focus groups, we asked a bit more about whether those rates seemed about right. And the feedback we got was that, yes, and, in fact, many said we’re surprised it’s not higher.”

And that’s worrying to the Pentagon officials tasked with preventing sexual assaults, and not just because of the coarse language itself.

“Of course, those behaviors are intolerable, and we don’t want that to occur there,” Galbreath said. “But there is a strong, positive correlation between the experience of sexual harassment and the eventual sexual assault of people in military units. And so we think that because these two problems are on the same continuum of harm, getting at that sexual harassment, the crude and sexist behavior, is part of the prevention work that goes into sexual assault. ”

Directives being implemented

In conjunction with the report’s release, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered each of the academies to develop multi-year strategic plans for handling sexual assault.

It was one of several directives Hagel issued to the military services. He also wants the academies to involve their students in developing command climate assessments, to create specific curricula around sexual assault, find ways to address social retaliation and to look for ways to decrease the role of alcohol as a contributor to the crimes.

“We do aspire to be a national leader, to lead generational change, just like we did with integrating the armed forces,” said Col. Alan Metzler, the deputy director of DoD’s SAPRO office. “We’ve done it with anti-discrimination, we’ve done it with the repeal of don’t ask/don’t tell, and we intend to lead change here. At the service academies, leading your peers is probably the hardest thing you have to do, and sticking your neck out and telling someone to knock it off is a difficult thing, because it creates social retaliation. That’s what we heard in the focus groups, and we want to teach our future leaders — those officers that have to lead from day one and enforce standards — that they need to do it at the service academies and they need to do it in the armed forces as well.”


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