Midshipmen participate in noon meal formation in 2019 at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.

Midshipmen participate in noon meal formation in 2019 at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. (Sarah Villegas/U.S. Navy)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday ordered on-site evaluations of each military service academy after a survey of cadets and midshipmen found an increase in sexual assaults among students.

The campus visits will be conducted by Gilbert Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and is one of eight actions that Austin laid out in a memorandum issued Friday, shortly after the release of survey results that showed an 18% increase in student-reported sexual assaults at the academies.

The defense secretary also requested the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Training and Education Center of Excellence improve training for campus leaders on how to assess and act on the cultural climate among students and pockets of risk. He called on the academies to better promote sexual assault prevention programs and resources and communicate to students the changing military justice system and the impacts it has on their reports of assault.

“As I have emphasized since taking office, I expect every member of our total force to be part of the solution to countering sexual assault and harassment,” Austin wrote to the leaders of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “I expect you to reverse the harmful trends at our [military service academies]. Now is the time to employ the resources with which we have been entrusted and advance our common way forward.”

The student-reported survey results from the 2021-22 academic year showed an increase at each academy — a trend since 2014 despite Defense Department efforts and attention from Congress. The problem is mirrored across the military, where research, programs and initiatives have increased to combat the problem, but without a statistic change.

Though the surveys are generally conducted every two years, the last year one was compiled in 2018 because the coronavirus pandemic forced officials to cancel the effort in 2020. However, the service academies still compile statistics on reported sexual assaults for each year.

Roughly 12,700 students attend the academies who will commission as officers in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Based on survey responses, the Defense Department estimated 1,136 students experienced unwanted sexual contact, with 155 of them reporting the assault to a DOD authority.

The three service academies collectively received 206 reports of sexual assault allegations in the 2021-22 school year that involved cadets, midshipmen, and preparatory students as either victims or perpetrators — an increase of 45 reports from the previous school year, according to the Pentagon report. Not every report occurred during a student’s time at the academy, though they are still able to report and receive assistance.

Of these reports, 61 came from West Point, 70 came from the Naval Academy and 75 came from the Air Force Academy, with 170 of the reported incidents happening when the person was a student at one of the academies.

The report released Friday did not speculate on the reason for the increase, but instead looked at risk factors. Alcohol was involved in about 60% of unwanted sexual contact, despite a reduction in excessive drinking reported during the same period. Assaults were more likely to occur among sophomores, which is the first year that students have more relaxed rules at service academies. Freshmen have the most restrictions imposed on them and were the least likely to be assaulted. Students who were assaulted before becoming cadets or midshipmen were more likely to be assaulted again, the report said.

Vice Adm. Sean Buck, superintendent of the Naval Academy, said in a prepared statement Friday that the results of the survey are “extremely disappointing” and there is work to be done to address the problem.

“Effectively addressing unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment requires fundamental changes in order to build healthy command climates and safe and respectful living and working environments,” Buck said. “We will continue to implement needed reforms to strengthen institutional trust, increase accountability for sexual violence, and to set the conditions for dignity and respect across the academy.”

Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland, the superintendent at West Point, and Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the superintendent at Air Force Academy, said in statements that they take each report seriously and are committed to changing behavior.

“Throughout the year, we will continuously evaluate and adjust to find solutions that work,” Clark said. “The landscape of this issue has evolved and changed over the years requiring us to change our approach and refresh our tools.”

Nate Galbreath, acting director of the DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the results of the survey highlight the importance of implementing the recommendations of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, which submitted its report to Austin in July 2021. Austin established the commission shortly after becoming secretary, and in September 2021, he laid out the plan for implementing the recommendations.

One major change from the committee’s recommendations is the creation of a Special Trial Counsel Office in each service branch by Dec. 27. That office will determine whether to prosecute certain crimes among service members, including sexual assault. At service academies, superintendents previously held that authority, and officials said the change will create more independence in the system.

“We think it's really, really important that we tell our cadets and [midshipmen] about this historic change that we're making, so they understand that the department is taking action [and] making change in the space, and they understand how the new system will work,” Beth Foster, executive director of the Defense Force Resiliency Office, said Friday during a call with reporters.

During the campus visits in the next few months, evaluators will be very involved in talking with cadets and midshipmen to get their understanding of what’s going on, Foster said.

Austin also called on the academies to issue a policy by Aug. 31 on the physical separation of students who suffered a sexual assault from alleged perpetrators. He said this should include not scheduling them in the same classes or putting them in close proximity during mandatory events. This policy would also meet a requirement issued by Congress in 2021.

The three academies already do have a version of separation policies, Galbreath said. However, this is just to the extent that is practical because of the communal nature of the academies.

Overall, Foster said academy superintendents and leaders have been receptive to Austin’s call to action and are looking forward to opening their doors for the upcoming evaluations.

“Our perception is that they absolutely want to get after this problem. The challenge is that they don't always know the right steps to take, or because the science and data has evolved so much in this space in recent years, they need new tools and capabilities to get after this,” she said.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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