Task force faults academies for harassment

Panel says schools' cultures are problem, suggests improvements

Critics say report is not enough

August 26, 2005|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A Pentagon task force sharply faulted yesterday the prevailing culture at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Army's military college at West Point for the schools' ongoing problems with sexual harassment and misconduct.

"Hostile attitudes and inappropriate actions toward women, and the toleration of these by some cadets and midshipmen, continue to hinder the establishment of a safe and professional environment in which to prepare future military officers," the task force wrote.

The task force noted improvements in emphasizing victims' rights and holding offenders accountable, but questioned the management of sexual harassment and assault prevention programs, calling them "fragmented and inadequate." Better training of officers, enhanced confidentiality in reporting and more promotions of women were among the task force's more than 50 recommendations.

The Naval Academy superintendent said he welcomed the task force's recommendations and noted that the academy has taken some of the recommended actions.

"We fully support increased confidentiality to better encourage reporting of incidents and provide immediate support to victims," said Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the Naval Academy's superintendent since 2003.

A spokeswoman for a private advocacy group criticized the report, saying it too closely followed the recommendations of several other commissions set up by the military to examine similar questions.

"We're not seeing new ground," said Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, a Newtown, Conn.-based advocacy group for victims of military violence. "They've spent an enormous amount of time, energy and funds, and most of these changes are already in the works."

The Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies used data from a report released in March by the Pentagon's inspector general.

According to that report, more than half of the women enrolled at the nation's three military academies said they had been sexually harassed, and more than one in 10 said they had been sexually assaulted.

Female midshipmen reported about 100 incidents of nonconsensual sexual behavior, the surveys found.

Among the findings in the report, the most strident deal with the prevailing culture at the service academies.

"Historically, sexual harassment has been inadequately addressed at both academies," the report says. "Harassment is the more prevalent and corrosive problem, creating an environment in which sexual assault is more likely to occur."

Offenders have not been effectively held accountable during the past 10 years, although the academies in the past two years have used administrative disciplinary actions when accusations could not be adjudicated.

The report's release comes as the Defense Department is adding sexual assault response coordinators and victims' advocates at every major base worldwide.

Since 1988, the military has conducted at least 18 investigations into sexual harassment and gender equity in the military, according to the task force's Web site.

The investigations took on renewed momentum in 2003 after media reports highlighted lax handling of sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The Pentagon appointed an investigative commission and the Air Force replaced or demoted the academy's top commanders. Last year, Congress created the task force, which has six civilian and six military advisers; that panel recently focused on the other two service academies.

The panel will conclude after the report goes to Congress and will be reconstituted to examine how the military branches are addressing sexual assault, said Vice Adm. Gerald Hoewing, the Navy's chief of personnel and the task force's co-chairman.

Among the task force's recommendations:

Write legislation to legally protect communications made by victims to health care providers and victims' advocates;

Encourage midshipmen and U.S. military academy cadets to hold each other accountable by intervening and correcting each other for infractions;

Adopt existing training programs into graded academic courses that address sexual assault and harassment;

Develop an institutional prevention plan that is evaluated and updated frequently;

Establish relationships with civilian groups for sexual assault victim support;

Increase the number of female peers and role models.

Rempt said the academy had increased its number of senior female officers, with 17 women at the commander and captain ranks this year, compared with six in 2003. The report showed that in key chain-of-command, faculty and staff positions, men outnumber women at the Naval Academy about 4 to 1. Typically, between 600 and 700 of the academy's 4,200 students are women. All three service academies began admitting women in 1976.

The inspector general's report last spring said male and female midshipmen came in last for reporting harassment and assault.

Rempt noted that an academy initiative enacted in 2003 to provide "limited confidentiality" had led to an increase in incidents reported. Limited confidentiality allows midshipmen to report sexual harassment and misconduct without triggering a full military investigation.

Delihlah Rumburg, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and co-chairwoman of the committee, said that the "limited confidentiality" terminology was confusing, and that midshipmen need to understand to whom they can speak with confidentially.

Said Rumburg: "We also know, particularly from civilian experiences, individuals may not seek medical care or psychotherapy if there is concern about not having privileged communications or having some place to go where they feel safe in disclosing information about their sexual assault."

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