Air Force Academy gets tough on sex harassment

May 01, 1994|By New York Times News Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Over the past year, as the Navy has reeled under the Tailhook scandal, the Air Force Academy here has been facing up to its own sexual harassment crisis. But the reaction, and the results, could hardly be more different.

Since February 1993, when a female freshman at the Air Force Academy told campus authorities that several young men had sexually assaulted her outside the cadet gymnasium, a dozen other women have stepped forward to lodge complaints ranging from date rape to fondling.

As a result of investigations into the complaints, an instructor and a cadet have been court-martialed and jailed for sexual misconduct. Three other cadets have resigned and three more disciplined. Sensitivity training has been sharply increased. And a 24-hour confidential sexual-assault hot line is up and running.

All branches of the military are struggling to eliminate sexual harassment in their ranks, with varying degrees of success. But the Air Force Academy's experience shows what a difference the top leader makes.

Nine days after the assault, the academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer, gathered most of the academy's 518 female cadets in the campus auditorium. He ordered his male aides to leave, and even ejected two men in the projection booth.

Then he removed his insignia of rank and promised the women confidentiality in exchange for the "ground truth" about sexual harassment on the campus.

For nearly four emotionally charged hours, the women poured out their fears and grievances in response to General Hosmer's questions on how many had experienced sexual assault or other forms of harassment, or knew somehow who had.

"Women were angry that the academy hadn't done something before this," said Cadet Rebecca Sonkiss, a 21-year-old senior from White Lake, Mich., who will enter flight school this summer.

"We came here naive and trusting, thinking that we'd be protected by the people around us," said Cadet Adelle Belisle, 21, a senior from Yarmouth, Maine, who is planning a medical career. "It was shocking. We all know of cases of sexual harassment here."

General Hosmer, a Rhodes Scholar and former inspector general of the Air Force, was a member of the academy's first graduating class in 1959 and the first alumnus to head the institution. He said in a recent interview that he had sensed "warning indicators" of problems, but was "stunned and disappointed" at what he heard.

General Hosmer also said he was determined to avoid the Navy's stumbling response after scores of women were assaulted by naval aviators at the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association in Las Vegas, Nev., and a sexual harassment episode at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1990, when a female student was chained to a urinal by several male classmates.

A few days after meeting with the women, the general met with all the male cadets. More than 50 percent of all the female cadets had said they knew of sexual harassment cases, but only 9 percent of the men did.

"It was common knowledge among the females and virtually unknown to the males, whose perception was that sexual harassment didn't exist here," General Hosmer said in an interview.

"We really had a problem, but it wasn't assault, which is a rare occurrence," he continued. "The bigger problem was the climate here. We knew we had to work on this, but we didn't realize the extent we had to work on it."

The Air Force Academy quickly took action. First, officials offered counseling to the harassment victims. General Hosmer also summoned 10 additional Air Force investigators to assist the four permanently assigned agents to examine the complaints.

A male senior was court-martialed for assaulting a female civilian. A male instructor, who held the rank of major, was court-martialed for having consensual sex with a female freshman.

The 4,000-member cadet wing was divided into focus groups of eight to 12 men and women to discuss sexual harassment and leadership ethics. "I learned more about human relations in the past semester than I did in the previous four years," said Cadet James Davis, a senior from Millen, Ga.

While the academy's ambitious crash course in what officials call "human relations" has heightened sensitivity, female cadets say the new climate is far from perfect. The original assault case remains unresolved, and many women harbor fears.

Male cadets who once said the the assault last year was eye-opening now grumble that the academy, which produces 17 percent of the Air Force's newly minted officers each year, is getting too touchy-feely and risks drifting from its main mission.

Change comes hard to this tradition-bound, male-dominated institution, which first allowed female students in 1976. Women make up only about 13 percent of the 4,027 cadets and 13 percent of the faculty.

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