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Sexual assault reports up slightly at Naval Academy

The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.

Chad Runge/Courtesy DVIDS

By Christina Jedra | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 10, 2016

There was a slight increase in sexual assault reports at the Naval Academy in the 2014-15 school year, the Department of Defense announced in a report Friday. Reports went from 23 in the previous year to 25.

Academy officials said the report "documents progress" in preventing and responding to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

"A strategic priority for the department is to increase the number of sexual assault reports made to authorities by victims in order to provide them with needed support and services and to hold those who commit sexual assault appropriately accountable," said Jennifer Erickson, an academy spokeswoman.

The report tallied 91 reports of sexual assault at the three military service academies -- the Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. This was an increase of 32 reported incidents from the previous school year, mostly due to such reports nearly doubling at the Air Force Academy.

There were 13 informal complaints of harassment at the Naval Academy, the highest number at any military academy.

The Defense Department commended the Naval Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response plan, calling it "a benchmark for other academies."

Twenty one women and four men made sexual assault reports to Naval Academy officials in the 2014-15 school year. Rates for reported unwanted sexual contact -- which includes unwanted behaviors from touching to sex -- were cut in half for both men and women in 2014, according to the department survey results.

Erickson said the increase in sexual assault reports at the Naval Academy could reflect prevalence of sexual assault, but could also mean midshipmen are using the resources available to them.

"The department expects yearly increases in reporting to be an indicator of improved cadet and midshipman confidence in the academy (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response) programs' ability to respond," she said.

Being 'SAPR'd'

Some of the 68 midshipmen who took part in voluntary, anonymous focus groups said there has been a shift in culture at the academy with the increase in training and awareness.

"Nowadays we're much less accepting of the stuff that used to go on, which in hindsight was pretty borderline with being inappropriate," a male mid said. "It's become less of a fraternity atmosphere."

Many noted the lack of privacy at the academy and potential social ostracism as reasons victims might not report a sexual crime. And some mids who are on their way out fear rumors will follow them to the fleet.

"We know what happens here won't stay here," said a female midshipman.

Several focus group participants said that as SAPR initiatives have increased, gender relations between mids have changed. Some respondents said there is a fear of being "SAPR'd."

"A lot of my guy friends are afraid to even talk to female midshipmen because they're afraid to get reported for something," a female mid said.

The report said the anonymous commenting app Yik Yak was repeatedly mentioned in focus groups as a popular form of social media on campus and as a way to retaliate. One mid said the app is used as "a nice way to be mean at the academy."

"To me, it almost hearkens back to some of the stuff we could say plebe year and get away with, and now is unthinkable," said another respondent.

Several mids, however, said Yik Yak users "self-police" the conversation by "down-voting" negative comments. If a comment is down-voted five times, it disappears.

One male mid said that while Yik Yak commenters poke fun at academy rule-breakers, comments of a sexual nature are treated differently.

"We all understand that a conduct case normally is something you can joke about, but something with regard to sexual assault, that's pretty serious," he said. "At least I hope that that is the consensus among the brigade."

Retaliation

Twenty-three faculty and staff members also participated in focus groups.

One pointed out that the training almost always focuses on heterosexual relationships.

"I know that they try to say (sexual assault) is a thing that a man can experience too, but that always feels like an after-thought," a military representative said.

"I've had some of the males in my company say when the SAPR office is full of women they feel that they might be a little less comfortable going to the SAPR office, because there isn't that male representative there."

Staff members also said that training can lose effectiveness with repetition.

"I feel like the midshipmen start to get numb to it," one military representative said. "Just because of how much training they have had and how sometimes they feel like they are being yelled at."

One staff member of the athletic department said "restricted reports," which are confidentially disclosed and don't trigger the investigative process, can be frustrating for academy leaders.

"I have someone hurting in my command, I can't do anything about it," the person said.

A faculty member said academy staff sometimes hear of retaliation against those who report.

"I have worked with survivors who have shared that after they made a report, they would come back and find sticky notes on their desk, anonymous ones, saying 'Thanks, now so-and-so is leaving, all thanks to you,' or just inappropriate ways to deal with that," the person said.

Room for improvement

Cmdr. John Schofield, another academy spokesman, said the academy is focused on "eliminating sexual harassment and assault from the Naval Academy family."

"This is challenging considering the fact that 25 percent of the brigade turns over every year through graduation and the arrival of the new class every summer," he said.

Midshipmen receive a minimum of 30 hours of education and training in this area over four years. The annual report helps pinpoint areas in which changes or improvements may be needed, Erickson said.

Defense Department officials said the academy is complying with its standards but offered suggestions, including:

--Refreshing the content of the academy's sexual harassment training year to year to avoid "message fatigue."
--Restoring peer leader training to a full credit (it is now half a credit).
--Having the Naval Criminal Investigative Service explain its services to midshipmen.
--Communicating with Mercy Hospital in Baltimore to collect and store Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Kits.
--Providing examples of potential case outcomes in the military justice system.
--Ensuring officers in a victim's chain of command provide case updates.

Sexual assault cases are addressed on a "case-by-case basis," Erickson said.

"In every instance, reports are investigated thoroughly and offenders are held appropriately accountable for their actions," she said.

Schofield said that the report shows room for growth.

"This report is not cause for celebration and does not represent a 'finish line' in any way, shape or form," he said. "Twenty-five cases is not elimination.

"We are constantly promoting a positive command climate where no form of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact is ever acceptable, and our values-based culture of dignity and mutual respect demands nothing less."

(c) 2016 The Capital. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The 1,192 members of the U.S. Naval Academy's incoming Class of 2019 gather in Tecumseh Court for the Induction Day Oath of Office Ceremony on July 1, 2015 in Annapolis, Md.
Nathan Wilkes/U.S. Navy

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