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The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is shown from the air. (U.S. Military Academy)

WASHINGTON — Reports of sexual assault among cadets and midshipmen at U.S. military service academies reached a 16-year high in 2021, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the academies.

The report, which was released Thursday, found 131 students at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., reported having suffered a sexual assault during the 2020-2021 school year — the highest amount since the Defense Department began recording the data in 2005. There were 88 reports of sexual assault filed in the 2019-2020 academic year.

In addition, the number of sexual harassment complaints in the 2020-2021 school year more than doubled that of the 12 reported during the prior school year. In 2020-2021, there were 30 reports of harassment across the service academies.

Nate Galbreath, the acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Response Prevention Office, said Thursday that the drop in complaints during the 2019-2020 school year was likely a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The service academies closed for the second half of the spring 2020 semester as the virus first surged throughout the United States.

The 131 sexual assault complaints surpassed the previous high of 122 reports of sexual assault at the academies in the 2018-2019 school year, which was also the first time the total jumped into the triple digits, according to the report.

Of the reports in 2020-2021, 46 were filed by West Point students, 33 by Naval Academy students and 52 by Air Force Academy students, according to the report. Fourteen cadets and midshipmen also reported being sexually assaulted prior to joining the military service.

There were 13,958 cadets and midshipmen at the three service academies during the last school year, including 4,613 at West Point, 4,742 at the Naval Academy and 4,603 at the Air Force Academy, according to the report. Women made up approximately 25% of the student population.

The “vast majority” of assaults at the academies were likely perpetrated by other cadets and midshipmen, Galbreath told reporters Thursday, citing data from the Pentagon’s most recent survey of sexual assault prevalence in the service academies.

Three students who reported sexual assaults requested and were given expedited transfers to other military academies because a provision in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act now allows the academies to do so, Galbreath said. NDAA is an annual law that sets funding and policy priorities for the Defense Department.

Additionally, 16 preparatory school students, active-duty troops and civilians reported they had been sexually assaulted by a service academy cadet or midshipmen during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the report.

More so, the number of sexual assaults that occurred was likely higher than those reported, Galbreath said.

“Sexual assault is vastly under reported,” he said. “In other words, that occurs much more often than what were reported to law enforcement — and that's true for not only the military but also for the civilian sector as well.”

For example, Galbreath estimated only about 12% of sexual assaults that occurred in 2018 were reported, citing the sexual assault prevalence survey that revealed about 15.8% of female students and 2.4% of male students experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2018. That averages to about 747 sexual assaults — but only about 92 were reported.

While last year’s number of filed reports is up 84% from the all-time low of 21 complaints in 2008, it is difficult for researchers to determine whether the prevalence of sexual assault is rising or if victims have become more comfortable reporting their experiences, he said.

Regardless, Galbreath said the goal is to reach a point one day when victims report all instances of sexual assault so they can receive care. He said having the most accurate data will also help “reduce how often sexual assault occurs so that there aren't any more victims.”

“There is still much more work to be done and we recognize that this is a troubling problem,” Galbreath said. “It's a horrible thing to have to experience and that we are here to help make sure that it happens less often, and that victims get the kind of care and support they need to recover.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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