Academy faced with troubling questions Handling of charges against midshipmen raises fairness issue

June 09, 1996|By Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich | Tom Bowman and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

On an April night, a student leader was led in shackles from the U.S. Naval Academy after four women classmates accused him of sexually assaulting them.

Two months later, the case against Midshipman 1st Class Scott T. Ward of Grand Rapids, Mich., has dissolved into a less severe one, one of his accusers faces expulsion herself and the academy is again in turmoil -- as much for the way it handles misdeeds as for the misdeeds themselves.

The complex, tangled episode has called into question the school's vaunted honor system, the selection of midshipmen leaders and the difficulties women face in bringing complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

"This has got to be explained," said U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican and member of the academy's advisory board. "On the face of it, this appears to show why there is such deep cynicism at the Naval Academy."

At the heart of the trouble is the seeming inequity of treatment. The academy superintendent, acting on a report from an investigator, decided last week that Ward, 21, the third-ranking midshipman, will not face a court-martial, the military equivalent of a criminal trial. The most severe penalty he faces is dismissal from the academy.

Meanwhile, one of the four women who alleges he made unwanted sexual advances, Midshipman 1st Class Naomi Jackson, 21, from Bedford, N.Y., has been recommended for dismissal for lying about why she didn't attend a military dinner the same day she testified against Ward. Jackson could not be reached for comment.

"We want leaders with integrity, not people who are using their power in the worst possible way," Gilchrest, a decorated Marine combat veteran in Vietnam, said about Ward. "I don't care if he made a pass at this girl, to me that's intolerable. This guy would have been bounced out of the Marine Corps in 25 seconds."

At the academy, some say it isn't so simple.

"Perception may not be reality in this case," said Capt. Tom Jurkowsky, an academy spokesman. "There are a lot of things we need to sort out."

Jackson's honor charge -- brought by her roommate when Jackson said she had forgotten about the dinner -- isn't a small violation, some at the academy said. Though those who know her describe her as a hard worker and a star on the track team, some people said that, as a senior, she should have known better -- and any lack of candor about a military event is serious.

"Things might seem trivial, but what's going to happen if the person is moving millions of dollars of equipment?" said Chris Ieva, 22, the vice honor chairman from Princeton, N.J. "You need to be able to trust everyone because the stakes are so high."

One academy professor, who has taught there for nearly a decade and who agreed outsiders might see some honor offenses as frivolous, said: "The line is a strict one and not very forgiving. What troubles me is the punishment should always fit the crime."

Ward's attorney, William Cummings, said Ward had previous relationships with all four women. The academy, pressed by Cummings, now is considering whether to bring charges against Jackson or the other women of falsifying reports or of having sexual relations in the dormitory, which is prohibited, academy sources said.

Some classmates consider the actions against Jackson unjust and say she and the other women faced an emotionally difficult time because many classmates stuck by Ward. Classmates describe Ward as a popular leader in line to become a Navy SEAL. Many say he was treated too harshly when he was sent to a Marine jail for approaching several of the women after the investigation began.

"Of course, they'll go to his side," said one recent graduate who was in Ward's company. "They know him, and there are more of them." The brigade of 4,000 midshipmen is at least 85 percent male.

Academy officials said the fact that the charges were filed demonstrates women feel comfortable in reporting sexual harassment and assault. But some midshipmen said men can wander into rooms at night and make sexual advances easily because all the doors in Bancroft Hall, the huge student dorm, are left unlocked.

And several women said the hostility the alleged victims faced from their classmates had a chilling effect.

"It's not a good atmosphere to bring a complaint," said the recent graduate. "If you bring a complaint, everyone says, 'She can't take it.' "

Karri L. Zaremba, who left the academy last year, complained that she did so in part because of harassment after testifying against an academy student accused of assaulting several high school students attending a seminar on campus. The student accused in that case was expelled.

Zaremba, then a sophomore, wrote a seven-page memo to the commandant detailing how she was called insulting names and threatened, as well as how a male classmate earlier had tried to blackmail her for sexual favors.

Some academy graduates and others wonder how Ward made it through the selection process for midshipmen leaders, called "stripers," who are nominated by officers and are supposed to be screened thoroughly.

"For a guy to get to that position he has to fool everybody, his classmates, his company officer and the commandant," said one graduate.

But Jurkowsky, the academy spokesman, defended the process. Many stripers have gone on to stellar careers, including current Navy Secretary John H. Dalton.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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