WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force Academy has lost 25 percent of the freshman women in two of its last three classes, an attrition rate at least double that of Annapolis and West Point.
Academy officials are uncertain whether there is any link between the high dropout rate and the widespread complaints of sexual harassment that have recently swirled around the school in Colorado Springs, Colo.
However, Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer, the academy's superintendent, told the school's Board of Visitors at the group's annual meeting in Washington last week that female cadets may be leaving the school at higher rates because of the "pressures ** and tensions" of integrating women into a traditionally male environment.
The superintendent told the board -- made up of 15 presidential and congressional appointees -- that his staff would try to come up with a more detailed explanation.
"There must be some reason. We have to look into it more," said one board member, Democratic Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, who last week was told of the attrition rates by The Sun. "I'm not satisfied with 25 percent."
As a result of cadet losses, the academy will bring in one of its largest freshman classes in recent memory, some 1,400 cadets, with 15 percent to 16 percent women. The school generally has a freshman class of 1,200 with 12 percent to 14 percent women, said academy officials.
Women make up about 13 percent of the estimated 4,000 cadets at the Air Force Academy, roughly the same numbers as the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy. All three schools started accepting women in 1976.
But recently the similarities in the numbers of women at the Air Force school and the other schools has ended.
This school year, 46 women resigned from Air Force's freshman class, 24.9 percent of the women in the class. At the same time, only 18 women, or 13 percent of those freshmen, dropped out of the U.S. Military Academy; 20, or 12 percent, of freshman women left the Naval Academy.
Last year, West Point and Annapolis had higher rates of attrition for women than the Air Force Academy. But two years ago, Air Force again had 25 percent, double the rate at Annapolis and triple that of West Point.
The issue of sexual harassment surfaced in February 1993 when a freshman woman was sexually assaulted by three young men outside the school's gymnasium. The case has not been solved.
Shortly after the attack, General Hosmer called all the female cadets together. Removing his insignia of rank, he asked the women to be candid about sexual harassment. For several hours, the women told of incidents that ranged from off-color remarks to being fondled by male cadets.
The general brought in additional investigators to handle the charges, started a hot line for complaints and intensified training an effort to curb sexual harassment. The quick moves have brought praise from Capitol Hill, the Board of Visitors and cadets alike.
"I think the programs that are coming into place are helping," said Cadet Rebecca Sonkiss, a 21-year-old senior from White Lake, Mich., who will go to flight school after graduation.
But sexual harassment is still is a problem at the school, she said in a telephone interview. "We need to talk about it and deal with it. . . . There are a few people here that set a bad climate."
Some female cadets leave after being "ostracized" by male cadets for charging sexual harassment, she said, although they are few. Most women, she said, leave to pursue another career or to start a family.
School officials said that in exit interviews, departing cadets generally point to academics and a regimented environment as their reasons for dropping out. "There's nothing there that indicates sexual harassment," General Hosmer said.
One possible reason for the losses, said the general, is that freshman year at Air Force "tends to be more arduous" than at the other service academies. "Our demands are tougher," he said, without offering further explanation.
But representatives at West Point and Annapolis said that all three schools have tough requirements.
Pressed again by Mr. Dicks about any linkage between the sexual harassment controversy and attrition, the general speculated on the difficulties of women being integrated into the military.
"Is that related? I don't know," he said. "For most women there is more of a culture shock than for men. . . . There may be something going on at the other [service academies] we can learn from."
Air Force isn't the only service academy that has faced a sexual harassment problem. In 1989, Gwen Dreyer, a sophomore at the Naval Academy, was handcuffed to a urinal and jeered by male midshipmen.
Navy officials implemented measures to deal with the problem. They brought in more female officers, coaches and faculty, while revising the curriculum and conduct system to deal with sexual harassment.