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Annual service academies report finds coronavirus pandemic resulted in a drop in sexual assault reports

In a May 18, 2020 photo, the United States Naval Academy holds the fourth swearing-in event for the Class of 2020.

STACY GODFREY/U.S. NAVY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2021

WASHINGTON — The three military service academies had less reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the 2019-2020 school year after students transitioned to online classes at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday.

However, the number of sexual assault reports matched the same quarterly trend as the previous academic year before cadets and midshipmen were sent home in mid-March, said Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

But by the fourth quarter of the academic year, there was a noticeable decrease in reports that is attributed to students leaving the schools, he said. Students in their senior year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado stayed on campus, according to the report.

The annual report on sexual harassment and violence found the service academies received a total of 129 reports during the 2019-2020 academic year that involved students as survivors or perpetrators, a decrease of 20 reports from the previous year. Of those reports, 105 were made by or about current students, 11 were reports for assaults prior to service, 10 were from active-duty members or civilians after they had left the academy, and three were preparatory school students, according to the document.

In addition to the report, the biennial survey on the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the academies was not conducted in March and April. With the official reports, the survey helps understand how often sexual assault happens. Together, they are the best indicators of the climate at the academies and whether the school prevention programs are working.

“It's something that we were very disappointed not to be able to capture,” Galbreath told reporters.

The report’s findings come during increased attention at the Defense Department at preventing sexual assault in the military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in January ordered a review of the military’s sexual assault and harassment prevention efforts. The effort is part of a 90-day commission that President Joe Biden has ordered to find solutions to sexual assault in the military, according to Austin. More details about the Defense Department’s commission are expected this week.

The military service academies survey is done in person using pencil and paper to ensure anonymity, as well as a high participation rate in the analysis. Surveys done online have a lower participation rate, Galbreath said. The Pentagon’s goal for progress is to see less prevalence of sexual assault and more reports, a reflection of people’s ability to come forward to access services and resources as well as help bring offenders to justice, according to Galbreath. The next survey will be conducted in April 2022, he said.

Of the 105 reports made by or about current students, 88 were from cadet and midshipmen survivors, seven were active-duty survivors, and 10 were civilian survivors reporting on a service member. The 88 reports from students was a 13% decrease from previous year’s 122 reports, Galbreath said.

The Air Force Academy had the greatest number of reports at 41, an increase of one report from the previous year. The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., had 34 reports, also an increase of one report. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., had 30 reports, a decrease of 27 reports. There were 25 less reports from 2019-2020 compared to last year due to less reporting from the U.S. Military Academy, according to the document.

Sexual harassment reporting was also down in 2019-2020, with service academies receiving 12 complaints compared to 17 in the previous academic year. Five complaints were from the Air Force Academy, four from West Point, and three from the Naval Academy, according to the report.

Without the prevalence survey results, the reason behind the decrease in reporting for sexual assault and sexual harassment cannot be completely understood, the report concluded.

Two programs and their implementation were also highlighted in the report.

One was the Catch a Serial Offender Program, or CATCH, a Defense Department program that allows sexual assault survivors the ability to submit their case details to a system that then works to match reported offenders to other assaults. During the 2019-2020 academic year, 45 entries were submitted from the academies. Two survivors at the Naval Academy and one at the Air Force Academy had their entries matched, according to the report. After a match, survivors can decide whether they want to move their report to participate in the military justice system.

The other program was a new climate assessment pilot program that would allow cadets and midshipmen to fill out a survey to evaluate their fellow student leaders. This is due to a lack of trust in peer leadership regarding experience and to enforce policies has been consistent issue at the academies, according to the report.

“So we asked the academies to take some steps to better prepare those student leaders to intervene and to step up and enforce good standards of discipline and dignity and respect wherever possible,” Galbreath said.

The climate assessment programs at the Naval Academy and West Point are expected to be undertaken during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the report. The Air Force Academy has not stated when the school plans to start its program.

The 2019-2020 academic year was the beginning of the schools developing their approach to preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment, but that was stymied because of the pandemic, according to the report. Overall, they found that the schools are making progress, but they remain in the early phase of institutionalizing their prevention efforts.

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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