Sexual assault reports rise at military academies. How is Pentagon responding?

The Pentagon cites policy changes following the release of a study that found a 65 percent increase in reports of sexual assault at military academies between 2010 and 2011.

Cliff Owen/AP
Panayiota Bertzikis, executive director of Military Rape Crisis Center, fights for military victims of rape and sexual assault. A new study found a 65 percent increase in reports of sexual assault at military academies over the past year.

There has been a worrisome increase in the number of sexual assaults reported at America’s military academies, according to a congressionally mandated study released Tuesday by the Pentagon.

“One sexual assault is too many,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement in the wake of the study – which found a 65 percent increase in reported incidents of sexual harassment and violence between 2010 and 2011. “We treat each other with dignity in this institution. I expect everyone in this department to live up to that high standard.”

The Defense Department said it was implementing some changes in policy in the wake of the study findings, including new policies that senior defense officials said were meant to improve the treatment of assault victims at the academies.

However the most concrete policy change, which facilitates the speedy transfer of assault victims should they wish, also obliges them to surrender a degree of protective anonymity.

The study found that there had been 65 reports of sexual assaults at the academies between 2010 and 2011, compared to 41 the previous year. It did not specify whether the number of reported incidents was indicative of a wider unreported problem, as is often the case with sexual assaults.

Mr. Panetta called the increase in sexual assault reports “a leadership issue, first and foremost, so I expect us to lead with integrity and with energy to eliminate sexual assault and harassment from our culture.”

To this end, Pentagon officials are asking the academies to develop methods and metrics to evaluate sexual assault initiatives.

Advocates of sexual assault victims question why such metrics have not been developed earlier.

Part of the problem, they say, is that the Pentagon itself does not conduct any military-wide surveys on the incidences of sexual assault. Instead, defense officials release the number of official sexual assault reports they have received. If those figures go up, defense officials often argue that it simply means victims are more comfortable seeking help than before.

The Air Force recently commissioned its own Gallup poll of sexual assault throughout the force, the first service to do this. It found one in five women had been the victim of sexual assault.

Many of these statistics mirror the experiences of the general US population, say defense officials. “We know that the military academies are similar to college campuses around the country in that sexual harassment and assault are challenges that all faculty, staff, and students need to work to prevent,” adds Maj. Gen. Kay Hertog, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention Office.

Yet assault within the service academies is particularly egregious, argues Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. Though “military service academies are similar to civilian universities and colleges in their student demographics, in other ways they are unique.”

That’s because the “vast majority” of higher-echelon officers come from the academies and “are in charge of developing implementing and enforcing sexual harassment and assault policies in today’s military,” Mr. Jacob notes. “Ending the widespread issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military starts by ending it at the service academies.” 

In the meantime, a new Pentagon policy provides for the expedited transfer of those who have been the victim of sexual assault to be transferred, should they so wish.

The problem, some point out, is that in order to qualify for such a transfer, victims must file what the military calls an “unrestricted report,” which requires a commander to launch a military criminal investigation, rather than a “restricted report,” which allows the victim to remain anonymous.

The report found some positive developments at the academies. West Point named its superintendent to chair the Sexual Assault Review Board “to ensure the highest-level awareness of the academy’s cases,” according to the Defense Department’s release. The Naval Academy established a therapist-led support group, and the Air Force Academy created an electronic reporting program to “improve its 24/7 response capability.”

“We owe it to those who have been victimized, and to every cadet and midshipman," Maj. Gen. Hertog said, "to do everything possible to provide needed support and to hold those who commit sexual assault appropriately accountable.”

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