Sex assault reports at Naval Academy increase slightly

Department of Defense report says number of incidents at service academies is 'concerning'

December 15, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Reports of sexual assault increased at the U.S. Naval Academy this year, part of a 64 percent overall increase at the nation's service academies, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Defense.

The report calls the increases "concerning" but adds that greater emphasis on understanding and reporting sexual assault might have contributed to the larger numbers.

Reports of sexual assault at the Naval Academy rose from eight in a 2008-2009 survey to 11 in 2009-2010. The overall increase at the service academies, which followed four years of declines, was driven by a sharp rise in reports at the Air Force Academy. The other service academy is the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"We have zero tolerance for this behavior and our goal is to deter and completely eliminate this unacceptable conduct," the Naval Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, said in a statement. "Accordingly, we have already begun to use this latest review to identify potential improvements to the training and accountability aspects of our program."

The report adds that 56 percent of female cadets and midshipmen at the three service academies said they experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous year, compared with 12 percent of males. Female cadets and midshipmen also reported increased numbers of alcohol-related incidents and assaults involving multiple assailants.

"The results show a concerning elevation in the incidents of unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment reported on the survey," the report states. "This increase may reflect an increase in incidents experienced by cadets and midshipmen, or it may reflect their ability to better recognize unacceptable behavior given the knowledge provided by sexual harassment and assault programming."

The report, released annually under a congressional mandate, notes that the reported sexual assaults probably account for less than 10 percent of unwanted sexual contact at the academies. The data in the report come from a voluntary survey of cadets and midshipmen conducted in the spring.

When asked the top reasons for not reporting incidents of assault or harassment, midshipmen said they would not want to be the subjects of gossip, had taken care of the problems themselves or had not considered the incidents important enough to report.

It's not easy to tell whether the increased numbers mean that more assaults are happening or more are being reported, said Lisae Jordan, general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. But Jordan said she's deeply troubled that after so much attention has been focused on sexual assault at the academies that "the numbers are back where we started five years ago."

"When you look at the combination of assaults and harassment, it raises questions about the overall culture," she said.

Jordan is most familiar with the Naval Academy, where she said positive changes have been made in recent years. But she said all of the academies might benefit from anonymous interviews with recent graduates and community members about the culture that leads to sexual assault.

She said that in the big picture, the annual accounting of sexual assaults represents a positive "sea change" for the academies. "This was an issue that simply wasn't discussed for many years," she said. "So the fact that we're having these conversations, painful as they can be, is a positive."

The academies distinguish between restricted, or confidential, and unrestricted reports. Of the 19 unrestricted reports in 2009-2010, 18 resulted in criminal investigations and midshipmen or cadets were the victims in 15. All but one of those victims was female.

In the assault cases, five of the accused assailants were civilians, one was unidentified and 12 were cadets, midshipmen or other military personnel. Of those 12, two were court-martialed and the rest faced internal discipline.

The incidents at the Naval Academy included one in which a female midshipman reported being sexually assaulted at a party by three enlisted sailors, all of whom were discharged. Another female midshipman said three intoxicated male midshipmen touched her in her bed and made sexually suggestive comments. All three men were disciplined internally because there was insufficient evidence for a court-martial. Another female midshipmen reported being touched on the breast with a carving knife.

Though the report praises existing efforts to increase awareness at the academies, it recommends that they establish data-driven evaluation methods for their prevention programs.

In 2009-2010, the Naval Academy trained 47 new student guides to help educate peers on dealing with sexual assault; launched a new instructional program for faculty members; added photographs and contact information for first responders on the academy website; and conducted monthly meetings on sexual assault prevention led by the superintendent.

A spokeswoman said that in the coming year, the academy will continue to bolster awareness training for midshipmen, faculty and staff and will explore training focused on the responsible use of alcohol.

"As superintendent, I am fully committed to improving our training, supporting victims and holding offenders accountable," Miller said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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