WASHINGTON – Incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies spiked nearly 50 percent during the last school year despite years of focus on the issue and declarations of zero-tolerance, according to results of a survey conducted by the Pentagon.
The number of students reporting unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 during the 2017-18 academic year compared with 507 in 2015-16, according to anonymous surveys of cadets and midshipmen. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.
“We’re disheartened and disappointed that the things and the strategies that we’ve employed just really aren’t getting the results that we want,” Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told USA TODAY on Thursday.
About 16 percent of women and 2 percent of men at the military’s premier military colleges reported being sexually assaulted, Galbreath said. The increase in assaults stems from more men and women at the Army’s academy at West Point reporting unwanted sexual contact from men and women, more women reporting at the Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, while reporting remained stable at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
The survey at the academies to determine the prevalence of sexual assault is done every other year. For the 2013-14 school year, 327 students responded that they had been victims of such contact, less than half the figure reported in the latest year.
“Alarm bells should be going off at our academies, the DoD, and Congress,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the personnel panel on the House Armed Services Committee. “Clearly what is being done to address sexual assault in our academies is not only not working, it has allowed assault rates to increase a staggering 47 percent.”
Another troubling finding: about 50 percent of women students reported being sexually harassed in the 2017-18 school year, up from 48 percent compared with the previous report. For men, 16 percent reported sexual harassment last year compared with 12 percent in the last report.
“That’s not just a one-off comment or joke,” Galbreath said. “Our measure on this survey aligns with policy and law in this area and helps us understand this is repeated unwanted behavior of a sexual nature, that is pervasive and severe, meaning it’s repeated.”
Despite the increase in sexual assaults, cadets and midshipmen, as the students are known, their willingness to lodge formal complaints has remained flat, Galbreath said. The 747 anonymous reports of sexual assaults generated only 92 formal complaints, Galbreath said, a rate of about 12 percent that has not changed.
“That’s very concerning to us,” he said.
About 12,000 students attend the Army, Navy and Air Force academies.
“Clearly there’s a cultural problem at the academies,” said Don Christensen, the former top prosecutor for the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military. “There have been decades of the academies downplaying sexual assault. There are almost zero consequences for someone who commits sexual assault there.”
The factors driving the increase in assaults and harassment are not immediately clear from the data, Galbreath said. To combat the problem, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had ordered the armed service chiefs and academy leadership to focus on programs that emphasized responsible alcohol consumption, better prevention efforts, a culture of respect and improved reporting of assaults. The effect of those programs isn’t entirely reflected in the new survey data, Galbreath said.
The #MeToo movement has encouraged some women to report sexual assault and harassment. MeToo began in 2006 and gained new momentum in 2017 with allegations of sexual assault against high-profile men in entertainment, news media and politics. But the 747 incidents of unwanted sexual contact at the academies were disclosed to researchers in a confidential survey, not necessarily reported to authorities for possible prosecution.
“The academies are grooming the next generation of military leaders,” Christensen said. “They are supposed to be held to a higher standard. What message does this send to the troops they will be leading?”
In a report released last year on sexual assault at the academies, the Pentagon acknowledged that the problem had grown worse despite its efforts.
“Despite significant investments of attention, time, and resources, the 2016 estimated prevalence (occurrence) rate of unwanted sexual contact increased at all three academies, as compared to the rate measured two years prior,” the report concluded. “In addition, rates of reporting sexual assault, perceived negative outcomes associated with reporting, and other measures showed only modest, if any, improvement in the climate pertaining to sexual assault and sexual harassment at the academies.”
The military has waged a long battle to deal with sexual assault within its ranks. In 2013, the Pentagon released a report that estimated troops reporting unwanted sexual contact had jumped 35 percent from 2010 to 2012 — to 26,000 victims.
That report sparked intervention from Congress, which legislated changes on how sexual assault in the military was prosecuted and mandated enhanced care for victims.
The Pentagon issues a variety of reports tracking sexual assault among troops, and also commissions outside studies. In Sept. 2018, The RAND Corp., a non-partisan think tank, issued a report that found young women troops faced the highest risk of sexual assault after a survey of 170,000 active-duty troops.
There has been some progress: rates of sexual assault for active duty men and women decreased between 2016 and 2014 and are at the lowest level since 2006, according to the Pentagon.