COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Colorado Springs, Colo.-- --From the moment new cadets arrive at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the message is made abundantly clear.
They attend classes in small groups, separated by gender, and learn the meaning of terms like "bystander effect," "non-stranger assault" and "situational awareness." They see video screenings of Frank: The Undetected Rapist.
Fliers all over the sprawling, space-age campus bear the numbers 333-SARC, a sexual assault hot line on which cadets can call a trained specialist at any hour to ask questions, seek advice or report sex crimes.
The training doesn't eclipse the rigorous, six-week military indoctrination they get upon arriving, but after four years, it's enough to make cadets joke that they graduate with a minor in "sexual assault studies."
The effort is anything but a joke: Three years ago, the academy, which trains future Air Force officers, was rocked by a sexual assault scandal that led to the reassignment of the school's three top officials, four federal investigations and far-reaching changes in the way the military deals with rape and sex crimes.
The scandal proved a forerunner of incidents that roiled the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
This year, a Naval Academy oceanography professor has been charged for allegedly using sexually explicit language in front of midshipmen, and two members of the football team stand accused of sexual misconduct. Jury selection begins tomorrow in one of the cases, that of standout Navy quarterback Lamar Owens, who is accused of raping a junior in her dorm room after a night of heavy drinking in late January. He denies the charges.
Now the Air Force cadets are trying to put themselves at the vanguard again - this time in solving the problem. Using a combination of relentless education and victim assistance, the academy has made strides in altering a macho culture that critics said encouraged the denigration of women and tolerated their abuse. Even victims' advocates say the turnaround is impressive.
"The changes that were implemented have worked at the academy, and I think the Air Force has been a model for the rest of the academies and the military," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who assisted victims in 2003 and was widely seen as an academy critic.
Several former rape victims who are no longer at the school question the progress made. They note, and the Air Force confirms, that no cadet has been convicted of sexual assault and - other than a few re-assignments - no officers were reprimanded for the previous incidents.
And accusers still face a difficult time winning convictions because of a military justice code that critics say is badly out of date.
However, data from the Defense Department - collected annually in the aftermath of the scandals - show improvement. Fewer women reported being sexually harassed and assaulted at the Air Force Academy, compared with Annapolis or West Point. Of those who said they were, Air Force cadets were much more likely to report it and less likely to fear reprisal from commanders. And women in Colorado Springs are much more likely to report in surveys that the environment for women has improved.
Angela Sheffield, an incoming senior from Scottsdale, Ariz., said the reforms at the academy have helped improve the culture, creating a climate in which off-color jokes or harassment are unwelcome.
She has heard from friends that the Naval Academy and West Point are much worse.
"All the jokes, slurs and other problems that we've been addressing, I've heard there are considerably fewer here than at the other academies, and I think a lot of that has to do with the approaches that higher-ups have taken to change the climate," she said.
Created at the dawn of the space age in 1954, the Air Force Academy campus has a futuristic feel. Many of the buildings - made of aluminum, glass and steel - look as if they might have been built with spare parts from spaceships. The academy chapel, framed as a giant triangle with 17 aluminum spires pointing toward the sky, seems as much a paean to flight and space as to God.
The campus is tucked into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, about a dozen miles from downtown Colorado Springs, Colo. Although it's a century younger than the Naval Academy and West Point, the school's singular focus on flight and aerospace has brought national renown, and its graduates regularly go on to careers with NASA or private businesses after fullfilling their military commitment.
A turning point
But its reputation took a nose dive in 2003 when media reports began to surface about women who had been raped and then retaliated against by commanders when they reported attackers.
Former cadet Beth Davis said she was raped repeatedly by an upperclassman in 1999 who then "blackmailed, degraded and threatened" her. She was warned by classmates that reporting the incident would destroy her career, but she did so anyway.