Academy Officials: Sexual Assault Reporting Shows System is Working
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2007 Rather than being alarmed by 40 reports of sexual assault at the U.S. service academies during the 2006-2007 school year, officials are calling them a sign that programs designed to encourage victims to report are working.
“It tells me that cadets are coming forward,” said Air Force Col. Gail Colvin, vice commandant of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It shows they have trust in the system and view it as a safe place where they can seek help.”
Colvin’s assessment came days after the Defense Department released its annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the Air Force Academy; U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y.; and U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md.
The annual report reveals 40 cases of sexual assault between June 1, 2006, and May 31, 2007: 19 at the Air Force Academy, 16 at West Point and five at the Naval Academy. It defines sexual assault as rape, sodomy, indecent assault or attempts to commit these offenses.
But officials at all three schools are quick to point out that sexual assault is a national problem that transcends the military. The name of a sexual harassment and assault prevention class offered to first-year midshipmen at the Naval Academy, “1 in 4,” hints to the national statistic that one in four college women experiences an actual or attempted sexual assault during college.
Army Col. Jeanette McMahon, the U.S. Military Academy’s special assistant to the superintendent for human relations, said the numbers of reported assaults alone don’t tell the whole story.
She pointed to broad sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention programs at all three academies designed to ensure every cadet and midshipman understands what sexual harassment and sexual violence is, what to do if they or someone else is victimized, and their responsibility as leaders to intervene. When cadets are more aware about what behavior is acceptable and what constitutes sexual assault or harassment and that victims aren’t to blame, they are more willing to report such incidents, she said.
Noting that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes nationwide, McMahon said she’s convinced the number of incidents at the academies is actually higher than the annual Defense Department report shows.
An anonymous 2006 survey at West Point in 2006 revealed that 65 women, or 10 percent of West Point’s female cadets, and 10 of its males, experienced a sexual assault. “So, clearly, we are not getting all the reports that are out there,” she said.
The DoD report cites a perception by some West Pointers of “a negative stigma associated with reporting sexual assault.” Similarly, it points out that cadets at the Air Force Academy may hesitate to report sexual assault for fear they will experience “retaliation by their command in the form of punishment for collateral misconduct.”
Officials say they want to dispel those impressions and agree the best way to encourage more victims to report sexual assaults is to continue building their confidence and trust in the system.
Navy Cmdr. Ricks Polk, the Naval Academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, cited two initiatives aimed at breaking down barriers to reporting sexual misconduct.
The academy offers a variety of ways to report to make victims as comfortable as possible with the process, Polk said. They can turn to a peer, specially trained midshipmen called sexual assault victim intervention guides; to a senior enlisted leader or officer serving as a victim’s advocate; to a chaplain or counselor; or to their chain of command. “We think that with all those different avenues of people being able to report, that maybe one of those will be appealing to them, and that they are … more likely to report,” Polk said.
In addition, a confidential reporting option introduced in 2005 offers victims mental and medical care and other support without requiring them to get involved in the criminal justice process. Half of the cadets and midshipmen who reported sexual assaults during the 2005-2006 academic year elected this option, according to the DoD report.
Colvin said this option, called “restricted reporting,” enables some victims who may feel stigmatized to step forward. “This takes all that off the table,” she said.
The report notes that the 20 sexual assault victims who chose “unrestricted” reporting during the report period, agreeing to follow through with the military justice process, also received support and care.
The challenge ahead, Colvin said, is for the academies to continue advancing programs to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment from happening in the first place. “It’s about creating a culture and climate of respect, both for oneself and others,” she said.
This leads to an environment of trust so when incidents do occur, victims are more likely to report them, she said.
The DoD report supports Colvin’s assertion. “A command that is seen as fair and balanced in its response to sexual assault is more likely to create an environment that will not deter reporting,” it says.
As the academies strive to create that climate, Colvin said she’s satisfied they’re on the right track. “The numbers tell me our programs are working … and that cadets have a deeper trust and are coming forward,” she said. “We’re trying to attack the issue … (and) to get more cadets to come forward.”