'Skirt-chasing' philosophy out, Naval Academy hears

August 23, 1992|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS -- The U.S. Naval Academy, still haunted by its own widely publicized incidents of sexual harassment, got a warning yesterday that the "hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, anything-goes philosophy" that led to the Navy's Tailhook scandal will not be tolerated.

A daylong seminar on sexual harassment here yesterday was prompted by the Tailhook incident, in which current and former Navy aviators, gathered for a Las Vegas convention last September, forced several dozen women to run a gantlet, grabbing them and tearing their clothing.

Two years earlier, the Naval Academy experienced its own Tailhook when Gwen Dreyer, a 19-year-old, second-year student from Encinitas, Calif., was dragged from her room in Bancroft Hall and handcuffed to a urinal as men jeered and took pictures.

Just as the Dreyer incident was a watershed in sexual harassment for the Naval Academy, so has Tailhook become a turning point for the Navy, Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, superintendent of the academy, said yesterday.

Because of Tailhook, J. Daniel Howard, then acting secretary of the Navy, ordered a rare "stand down" on sexual harassment for the entire Navy last month. The last Navywide "stand down" -- when each branch schedules a day to suspend all other activities and focus on one issue -- was conducted two years ago after several serious safety violations involving Navy ships and aircraft.

"Tailhook may have provided the catalyst, but following this day we will have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the problem," Admiral Lynch said. "We should have done this whether or not Tailhook occurred."

Yesterday, more than 4,300 midshipmen, dressed in summer whites, filed into Alumni Hall, where they met in small, closed groups and watched videos portraying sexual harassment episodes. Except for the 1,200 incoming plebes, most of the midshipmen had just returned to the academy from summer training. Classes begin tomorrow.

On large video screens, they also heard top Navy officials denounce the mentality exemplified by the Tailhook episode.

"The hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, anything-goes philosophy that led to Tailhook has to go," said Mr. Howard. The Navy, he said, is taking steps "to dismantle a decaying culture."

Mr. Howard served briefly as acting secretary after Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned in June because of the Tailhook scandal. The incident occurred at a meeting of the Tailhook Association, a naval aviation booster club named for the mechanism that enables planes to land on aircraft carriers.

With more than 70 people implicated, the episode is still under investigation by the inspector general for the Department of Defense.

Admiral Lynch, who assumed the academy's top post last year, branded Tailhook "a disgrace and an embarrassment" yesterday.

"The policy of the Navy and the Naval Academy is very simple: zero tolerance of sexual harassment," he said. "Those who cannot abide this policy will be dismissed from the corps and dismissed from the Navy and Marine Corps."

The tack -- while reflecting the aggressive policies imposed more recently -- contrasts sharply with the lenient punishment dealt to the midshipmen involved in the incident that ultimately prompted Ms. Dreyer to resign. Two midshipmen lost leave time and were issued demerits, while six others received written reprimands.

A committee appointed to investigate the incident and other allegations of sexual harassment later criticized the response by Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., then academy superintendent, "as insensitive to sexual harassment issues."

The academy first admitted women in 1976 and since then has struggled not only with sexual harassment but with other discrimination issues as well.

Admiral Lynch said yesterday that since the Dreyer incident, the academy had made great strides in dealing with both sexual discrimination and harassment.

Among the 4,300 midshipmen currently enrolled, 11 percent are women. Two of the three brigade commanders who have led the midshipmen during the past two years are women.

Most plebes attending the seminar yesterday said the continued awareness about sexual harassment was necessary.

"I think you just have to watch yourself no matter what you do," said Salvador Convento, 19-year-old plebe from Philadelphia. "In high school, it was such a free environment, you could do whatever you wanted to without thinking."

Sonja Washington, 19, a plebe from Mount Holly, N.J., praised the "courteous atmosphere" at the academy, saying it contrasted sharply with the mentality among men at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., where she completed a one-year program.

"Even if someone here touches you accidentally, he apologizes now," she said.

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