Navy calls for changes after report on sex assaults at military academies

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


By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2012

WASHINGTON – Top Navy leaders are calling for immediate changes at the Naval Academy after a report indicated the number of sexual assaults has not decreased but reporting of the crimes at the Academy has.

“I find it shameful that even one would-be officer would engage in this criminal behavior and treat peers with such disregard and disrespect,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a written statement Friday. “The U.S. Naval Academy must stand as the exemplar of only the finest attributes of naval service. It is no mere college. It’s that part of the fleet where we prepare future officers to lead sailors and Marines.”

Midshipmen and cadets at the three military academies reported 80 sexual assaults – including at least 17 rapes – in the last academic year, up for 65 the previous year, according to an annual report released Friday by the Department of Defense. Of those, 13 assaults happened before the victims joined the military.

The Air Force Academy had 52 reported sexual assaults, up from 33 the previous academic year. West Point had 15 reported sexual assaults, up from 10.

And the Naval Academy saw a drop in reported sexual assaults, from 22 to 13. But anonymous survey data included in the report indicates the number of actual sexual assaults at all three academies remained unchanged, and many assaults were not reported.

Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Mike Miller wrote in a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert that he is “very concerned” with the findings and will start a “stampout stand-down” when the brigade returns in January to increase the safety of midshipmen. Other efforts will include new training, increased security throughout the Naval Academy grounds, more leadership presence during off duty and weekend hours, improved victim support, and a review of alcohol policies.

Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention and response office, said he views increasing reports as a good sign, because sexual assaults are historically underreported crimes. Still, he said, the academies and commanders throughout the military must focus creating a “non-permissive climate” in which victims know they will be supported and treated fairly and attackers are held accountable.

West Point officials attributed the school’s increase in reported sexual assaults to increased confidence and understanding of the Army’s sexual assault prevention and response program.

“The survey findings provide us the opportunity to further evaluate our current policies and procedures to improve upon and move closer to our goal of eliminating sexual assault,” reads the unsigned statement provided by West Point’s public affairs office.

Air Force officials did not provide immediate comment on the report.

Nancy Parrish, executive director of Protect Our Defenders, a support and advocacy group for the victims of military sexual assault, said the report “shines a light on the severity and scope of the crisis, and validates our worst fears.”

Parrish said her organization regularly gets frantic calls and emails from active-duty service members and students at the service academies who are scared to report crimes or who feel they are being punished for reporting.

“Little is changing on the ground in spite of the years of announced reforms and years of zero tolerance policies,” she said. “Until we take command discretion and the conflict of interest outside the normal chain of command, this nightmare won’t end.”

The report also addresses sexual harassment. About 51 percent of women and 10 percent of men reported experiencing sexual harassment at the military academies; 12 percent of women and 2 percent of men said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the previous year.

Parrish’s group, along with Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., are pushing for a bill that would take investigating and prosecuting authority for sexual assault crimes out of the alleged victims’ chain of command and assign it to an autonomous sexual assault oversight group.

Speier said the report shows that victims “do not feel confident coming forward to report rape and sexual assault,” because doing so could make them a target for retaliation.

“The academies are supposed to be the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and yet this behavior is still going on,” she said. “Until the military gets serious about this problem and starts punishing the perpetrators who commit rape and sexual assault, and anyone else who tolerates it, it will not go away.”

The Navy in 2011 started a pilot program at Naval Station Great Lakes that has reduced sexual assaults by about 70 percent over a 23-month period, according to Jill Loftus, the Navy’s sexual assault prevention and response officer. And surveys and other measures indicate the reduction is in actual sexual assaults, not in reporting, Loftus said earlier this week.

Now, the Navy will move parts of the comprehensive program to other bases and to the Naval Academy in an effort to prevent assaults throughout the fleet.

Twitter: @jhlad