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WASHINGTON — Reported sexual assaults at military academies rose significantly in the last academic year, but defense officials insist that school administrators are handling the issue properly.

During the 2010-2011 school year, there were 65 reports of sexual assaults involving cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy. In the previous school year, only 41 reports were filed.

In fact, the 2010-2011 total number of reported sex crimes is nearly equal to the total of the previous two years combined. But authors of a Defense Department report on the service academies’ assaults called that figure “encouraging, as it is consistent with the Department’s goal to bring more victims forward to report the crime.”

Earlier this year, defense officials used similar rationale to explain the 11 percent increase in sexual assault reports in the services in fiscal 2010. Service-wide reports of sex crimes have been on the rise since 2008, when the Pentagon updated reporting and confidentiality rules for victims.

However, officials from the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group which focuses on harassment and assault issues, called the spike shocking.

“The leadership at the academies must be held directly accountable for this failure,” Greg Jacob, policy director of SWAN, said in a statement. “Ending the widespread issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military starts by ending it at the service academies.”

In a statement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that one sexual assault at the academies is too many.

“Whether it’s in our academies or our ranks, at sea or ashore, there’s no place for this unacceptable behavior,” he said. “I’m confident the steps we are taking are the right ones, but we must continue to improve.”

Most of the academy victims were female, but the total includes a few male victims. The report authors noted that the actual number of rapes and assaults is likely much higher than the reported total, because sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes in the United States.

The report also says that academy sexual assault reporting policies at the three institutions “fulfilled, and in some cases surpassed the requirements of existing DoD policies and directives,” news they labeled as encouraging steps to combat the problem.

Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, director of the Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said in a statement that when these assaults occur, “we owe it to those who have been victimized, and to every cadet and midshipman, to do everything possible to provide needed support and to hold those who commit sexual assault appropriately accountable.”

With the release of the report, defense officials also highlighted two new rules in the recently passed annual defense authorization bill regarding military sexual assaults.

The first requires the department to hold onto sexual assault records for longer than in the past. Restricted reports, where the victim can receive medical treatment and counseling without triggering a criminal investigation, will be kept for five years. Unrestricted reports, where a criminal investigation is launched, will be kept for 50 years.

The second, in the case of an unrestricted report, requires commanders to respond to a sexual assault victim’s request for transfer within 72 hours, and provides for a new appeal process if that request is denied.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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