Sexual assault reports by cadets, midshipmen at military academies surge by 32%
WASHINGTON – Reports of sexual assault by cadets and midshipmen at the nation's military academies jumped 32% during the past school year, reflecting increases in those crimes and a greater willingness to report them, according to a Pentagon report obtained by USA TODAY.
There were 122 reports of sexual assault during the 2018-19 school year, compared to 92 in 2017-18.
"We are encouraged that more cadets and midshipmen made reports of sexual assault this year," said Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. "Our program empowers those who experience sexual assault to connect with restorative care."
Last year, a more detailed report of sexual assault at the academies showed there were 747 incidents of unwanted sexual contact – ranging from groping to rape – in the 2017-18 academic year. That was an increase of nearly 50% from the 507 incidents in 2015-16.
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That report, based on anonymous surveys of cadets and midshipmen at the Army, Air Force and Naval academies, is considered the best measure of the problem.
An advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military pointed to last year's report and said this year's numbers reflect an increase in incidents, not just a greater willingness to report them.
"Since rates were up dramatically in last year's survey, I don't see this as good news," said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. "Rather, it's a reflection of a worsening problem."
The new report, scheduled for release Thursday morning, notes that reporting sexual assault can be risky to students' academic and military careers. Cadets and midshipmen fear being ostracized and damaging their reputations, according to the report.
It cites the experience of an unnamed male freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy. He told officials that reporting sexual assault can polarize midshipmen. "That sticks with you the whole time you're here because, like I said, it's a small place and things spread fast."
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Students at the academies referred to a "stereotypical male culture" that "requires women to fit in with the 'boy's club.'" Alcohol abuse contributes to assaults, the report said.
There were 27 additional incidents in 2018-19, including some from civilians and assaults that had occurred in other years, bringing the total to 149. The comparable figure for 2017-18 was 117.
In the 2019 survey, about 16% of women and 2% of men at the military colleges reported being sexually assaulted. The increase in incidents in that report stemmed largely from more men and women at the Army's West Point academy reporting unwanted sexual contact.
About 12,900 students attend the Army's academy at West Point, the Navy's at Annapolis, Maryland, and the Air Force's at Colorado Springs, Colorado. Three out of four students are men.
Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Pentagon's office of Force Resiliency, stressed the importance of combating sexual assault at the academies because they produce many of the military's top leaders.
"Our data last year, and the findings from this year's report, reflect the progress we have made in some areas, and the significant work that remains," Van Winkle said. "We will not falter in our efforts to eliminate these behaviors from our academies and to inculcate our expectation that all who serve are treated, and treat others, with dignity and respect."
Christensen said the Pentagon has failed to address sexual assault among the ranks.
"The focus the last few years has been almost solely on prevention, with no evidence it is working," he said. "The opposite is true. They seem to have surrendered on accountability, and the results have been a dramatic increase in sex assaults and harassment."
Thursday's report is the latest signal of the continuing crisis of sexual assault within the ranks. In May, the Pentagon announced that sexual assaults within the military overall increased 38% from 2016 to 2018.
That survey estimated there were 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2018, compared to 14,900 estimated in the last biennial survey in 2016.