Assault case fuels tension at Academy Conflict: Naval Academy midshipman Scott Ward (right) fights off charges of sexual assault aganist female classmates, and his accusers find themselves under renewed scruting

July 20, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich, Tom Bowman and Scott Shane | JoAnna Daemmrich, Tom Bowman and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

To his many admirers at the Naval Academy, Scott Ward was all a future combat officer should be: a wrestler, triathlete and sky diver, commander of half the midshipmen, headed for the elite Navy SEALs.

But to four female classmates, Scott Ward was more predator than paragon. After nights of drinking, they say, he went into their dorm rooms, climbed into bed and demanded sex.

Since Ward's promising Navy career collapsed with his arrest in April, he and an aggressive private lawyer have successfully fought off criminal charges of sexual assault. Ward still faces a hearing Monday that could result in his expulsion. But the tables have turned: One of Ward's accusers is under investigation for perjury and sexual misconduct; another has been told she may be charged with "fraternizing" with Ward.

For the scandal-scarred Naval Academy, the Scott Ward case has exposed a larger conflict. When Ward's friends whisper about a "feminist conspiracy" to frame him, and the women's friends say the academy's macho culture punishes women who dare complain, they speak across a chasm that divides the institution.

Twenty years after women arrived at the Navy's premier officers' school, and when they are heading into the fleet in unprecedented numbers as officers and recruits, their very presence remains controversial at Annapolis.

Many male midshipmen say privately they wish the academy still were the men-only bastion of its first 131 years. Women, who now make up 14 percent of the students, say their achievements too often are dismissed as the unearned result of favoritism or affirmative action.

The complicated relations between 3,400 men and 540 women are played out inside Bancroft Hall, the huge stone dormitory where all midshipmen live and where discipline is enforced by student leaders such as Ward.

Rules of the dormitory

Men and women are not segregated by wing or floor, and academy rules prohibit students from locking their doors. Late-night visits are constant, sometimes for study groups, sometimes for gripe sessions -- and sometimes, midshipmen say, for romance.

Officially, sexual activity is banned from "the Hall." One reason is that military rank can be abused for sexual bullying, especially when an upperclassman pursues a "plebe," or first-year student. But the ban has been widely ignored, at least until a crackdown ordered early this year.

"When I was a plebe, I felt like it was almost a common occurrence for guys to come back after they'd been drinking and walk into a girl's room," says 2nd Lt. Jennifer Campion, 21, a 1996 graduate training to become a Marine pilot.

Campion says rules have been tightened and conduct improved in her time at Annapolis. Sexual harassment training has been added to the curriculum, and there is a new Sexual Assault Victim Intervention program. Such programs, part of the Navy's nervous, post-Tailhook insistence on gender equality and sexual etiquette, stir considerable resentment.

Despite the new training, 66 percent of women students and 27 percent of men said in a survey early last year they believe sexual harassment is a problem at the academy. Yet only two harassment cases were reported in the entire 1994-95 academic year.

Women have long been reluctant to file complaints, says Harriet Bergmann, an English professor at the academy for 19 years.

"Over the years, there have been a lot of cases of sexual assault that were not reported," she says. "What still is true to some degree is the administration is not quite able to cope with these problems."

Commitment questioned

The women's supporters question the academy's competence and commitment in pursuing the charges against Ward. They say the turn the case has taken illustrates just why women are reluctant to report sexual harassment or assault; they risk being branded liars, shunned or worse -- one of Ward's accusers says she was punched and kicked by his friends on the way to meals.

And they may subject themselves to questioning about their sexual histories, possibly facing expulsion if they admit to sexual activity in Bancroft Hall.

"It takes a very bold person to come forward," says 2nd Lt. Alicia Chiaramonte, 22, a May graduate now in the Marine Corps.

In a memo written this spring for the academy leadership -- but never delivered -- a graduating woman expressed anguish about her experiences.

"I cannot think of a single day that has gone by that I have not had to listen to rude, disgusting comments being made about women from my male counterparts," she wrote in the emotional, four-page essay.

"I have been slapped on the butt, pinched and bumped into. I have woken up in the middle of the night on numerous occasions to find some male standing in my doorway, standing in my room, sitting on my desk, or actually in bed with me."

But she never dared complain, the woman wrote.

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