Reports of sex crimes at U.S. academies fall

Study is seen to suggest victims' reluctance to seek help

December 18, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

Sexual crime remains an under-reported problem at the Naval Academy and other military service schools, where cadets and midshipmen are acknowledging unwanted sexual contact in smaller numbers than in past years, according to a Defense Department survey expected to be released this week.

In the latest annual, anonymous survey at the academy, West Point and the Air Force Academy, respondents reported 34 instances of unwanted sexual contact during the 2007 academic year, down from 40 reported cases in 2006 and 42 cases in 2005.

At the Annapolis academy, midshipmen reported six cases of unwanted sexual contact, one more than last year. But the survey found 24 cases at the Air Force Academy, up from 19 the previous year, and four at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, down from 16 the previous year.

Officials found little to cheer about in the lower numbers, saying the data indicate more work must be done to break through the reluctance of victims to come forward for help.

"We recognize that unwanted sexual conduct is the most under-reported crime," said Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

"We want these numbers to go up," she said yesterday. "We want to create environments in which cadets and mids can come forward to get the care they need."

The incidents of unwanted sexual contact, not detailed in Wednesday's report, can include groping, forced sodomy, so-called "date rape" and rape, officials said.

The new assessment, based on data collected from 4,410 cadets and midshipmen, indicates that 1 percent of men and 9 percent of women reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact during the academic year.

After several years of high-profile cases of sexual crime on military campuses, the service academies have cracked down on sexual misconduct and instituted peer and professional education and training programs.

But it remains unclear whether such efforts are reducing the number of crimes, or whether victims are still reluctant to report them.

"Getting victims to come forward is a common problem and understandably there is a stigma that can come with these types of very personal crimes, " said Navy Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a spokesman for the Naval Academy.

He said the academy had made concerted efforts to train midshipmen to be aware of and avoid situations in which sexual crimes can be committed, and to know how and where to report them.

The academy has focused on providing resources for victims, identifying peers and midshipmen officers to whom reports can be made, and providing psychological, medical and legal advisers.

The new survey data, Carpenter said, "gives us some useful perspectives on what Mids think about these issues.

"Certainly, it is a challenge to eliminate sexual harassment, but we have been pretty clear that one incident is too many," he said. At its core, the emphasis is to set "a command climate of dignity and respect."

Increasingly, the service academies are focusing education on "bystander intervention" as a military leadership skill.

"The intention is to have your shipmate or battle buddy recognize what's going on and get involved," said Smith, the Pentagon spokeswoman. "You don't just close your eyes to this, you intervene."

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