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

Monday - 1/13/2014, 4:12am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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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."