Navy vows no tolerance in sex crimes at Academy

Air Force scandal prompts school to review policy

April 01, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The superintendent of the Naval Academy, Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, made a forceful statement yesterday expressing "zero tolerance" for sexual assault at the military college and vowing to promptly investigate all complaints.

It was Naughton's first public statement on the issue since the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., came under fire for its mishandling of sexual assault cases. It seemed aimed at assuring the school's oversight panel and the public that the Naval Academy was committed to aggressively pursuing complaints of sexual misconduct.

"The Department of Navy's policy regarding sexual assault is clear - prompt and thorough investigation and assessment, zero tolerance for proven offenders and maximum assistance to victims," Naughton said in opening remarks to the quarterly meeting of the school's oversight body, the Board of Visitors. "One incident of sexual assault by a midshipman is too many."

Naughton said the elite officer-training school was evaluating its policies in the aftermath of the Air Force Academy scandal, saying that he has had "very candid and productive discussions" with Air Force officials.

"We want to actively prosecute" offenders, he said. "Victims should not be victimized."

Naughton, who became superintendent in June, delivered a similar message to the school's 4,200 midshipmen on Sunday, academy officials said.

The Air Force announced last week that it was replacing four top academy officials after allegations by current and former female cadets that the school routinely brushed aside sexual-assault complaints and often turned investigations onto the accusers instead of their attackers.

The Air Force Academy said it had received 56 complaints of sexual misconduct since 1993, 20 of them rapes.

Prompting investigation

An investigation of the school by the Department of Defense's inspector general is also examining how the Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have dealt with sexual assaults.

In 2000, three football players were accused of raping a classmate at an off-campus party. A week before trial, local prosecutors halted the case as part of a deal requiring that the accused leave the academy. The victim's mother complained that the outcome - which did not include a guilty plea - would discourage other women from coming forward.

In 1996, four women alleged that the academy's third-ranking midshipman had sneaked into their dorm rooms and fondled or raped them. The midshipman avoided criminal charges but was expelled, and the academy briefly turned its investigation on two of his accusers.

In one of the most notorious cases, a group of midshipmen handcuffed a 19-year-old female student to a urinal in 1989, jeered her and took photographs. The woman resigned, while her attackers were punished with demerits and loss of leave.

The academy began admitting women in 1976. But it remains a male-dominated school. Of the 4,219 students, 644 are women. In a survey last year, 5 percent of the academy's students said they had experienced sexual harassment - down from 16 percent in 1997.

`A serious challenge'

Still, 78 percent of those who said they had been harassed last year chose not to report it. Naughton acknowledged yesterday that dealing with sexual assault remains a "serious challenge" and a "difficult issue." He said the academy had received 11 complaints of assault in the last three years. Of those, four were found credible, and three are still under investigation.

The academy has declined to say how the perpetrators were punished. Naughton cast the problem of sexual assault as a failure of leadership by both administrators and students and described it as a threat to "good order and discipline."

The centerpiece of the school's mechanism for handling sexual assaults is the Navy's 5-year-old Sexual Assault Victim Intervention Program. SAVI, as it is known, offers anonymous assistance from peer counselors and a 24-hour hot line staffed by victim advocates.

Naughton said that part of the training all midshipmen receive, beginning freshman year, focuses on "how not to be a victim." Another part "deglamorizes alcohol," which Naughton said has played a role in a large number of sexual assaults.

Lory F. Manning, a retired Navy captain who studies military women for the Women's Research & Education Institute, a Washington group, said that an unequivocal message from a senior leader like Naughton is crucial in setting the tone in a hierarchical organization.

"The Navy's culture is - people below can say things, and you can go, `Yeah, yeah yeah,'" she said. "But when you hear the top guy say it, then you know you're going to be marked on it."

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