Navy ‘gray-zone behavior’ study part of military sexual assault prevention and response effort

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In an effort to get ahead of potential sexual misconduct, the Navy has been using research and training models to learn more about “gray-zone behavior,” or acts that don’t meet the Navy’s definition of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Navy officials recently spoke exclusively to Military Times about that research in a teleconference hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School and the Department of the Navy Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or DON SAPRO. Researchers and communications representatives from those elements were on the call, as was a Navy spokesperson.

In 2018, DON SAPRO partnered with the college, located in Monterey, California, to refine efforts to prevent sexual misconduct within its ranks before it occurs.

The research is meant to give first-line supervisors training on how to handle inappropriate behavior in the workplace and should be ready to roll out to the fleet within the next year.

“When people think about SAPR, they immediately think about response,” said Dr. Jessica Gallus, senior advisor for the DON SAPRO, in a teleconference last week with Military Times. “We’re absolutely committed to providing victims with world-class care when they do experience sexual assault, but for us it’s just as critical that we focus on prevention.”

Gallus was also previously the deputy director of the Air Force’s Resilience Office, and she managed a research initiative on sexual harassment and assault within the Army’s sexual harassment/assault response and prevention program, or SHARP.

The issue of sexual misconduct in the military received increased attention as new developments surfaced in the case of an Army soldier who disappeared from Fort Hood on April 22 and was later found dead. Twenty-year-old Spc. Vanessa Guillen’s case revealed she may have been sexually harassed beforehand, according to family members who claim Guillen confided in them about two separate incidents.

Guillen’s family will join lawmakers on Wednesday to announce legislation making sexual harassment a criminal activity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Sexual assault is already a categorized crime under the UCMJ, according to the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or DOD SAPRO.

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Gray-zone behavior

Dr. Gail Thomas, an associate professor at the NPS Graduate School of Defense Management, heads up the initiative and employs “situational judgement tests,” or SJTs, that use real-world scenarios of gray-zone behavior. One scenario features a man complimenting a woman’s new haircut then follows up the comment with a wink. Depending on other factors, this act alone likely wouldn’t fall under the Navy’s definition of sexual harassment, but it’s also not conducive to a healthy work environment either, Thomas said. These tests are used in the corporate world and other places to assess individual ability to navigate potentially sensitive scenarios in a work environment.

Thomas, whose background is in inter-organizational collaboration and strategic communication, drew on her 30 years of experience working with the Navy, “so I’m familiar with these stories,” she said during the teleconference.

Thomas and her team took to “the field” to asked junior officers and sailors about their experiences with inappropriate behavior.

“They had no lack of stories to tell,” Thomas said.

In 2019, The Navy was third in the number of reported sexual assault cases, below the Army and Marine Corps, according to the Defense Department’s SAPR office. During the 2019 fiscal year, there were some 6,236 reports of sexual assault in the Armed Forces, a 3 percent increase from the previous year.

Testing the test

To measure the potential impact of the SJTs, Thomas decided to test the test, she said.

“Anecdotally, I heard a lot of stories of ‘where did you get these incidents? The same thing happened to me,’” Thomas said. “They came from people like them. That’s why, I think, they resonate with people. I got several comments [similar to] ‘this doesn’t look like any other training I’ve ever seen before.’ So, that’s what made me feel like maybe we’ve hit on something.”

Thomas said she’s looking to help the Navy create better, more healthy work environments.

“I would argue that the Navy, more than ever now, needs to be able to have that kind of condition at work,” Thomas said. “We need to be able to recruit people who want to come to this kind of place. We need to keep people.”

In addition to bolstering the Navy’s recruiting and retention efforts, the training will allow leadership and the rank and file the tools they need to succeed, Gallus said.

“It’s about empowering sailors and Marines to enact culture change,” Gallus said. “So, it’s giving them the tools where they can create the climate where these things don’t happen. We know that climate is the biggest driver of sexual harassment and that sexual harassment is a risk factor for sexual assault. If we can start at the earliest signs of challenging behavior, I think we have a much better ability to prevent some of those escalations.”

Marine nude photo scandal

In March 2017, news broke about an online group of mostly Marines who were sharing nude photos of fellow service members, sometimes with personally identifiable information. The Marine Corps took swift action, ordering an end to the sharing and issuing a disciplinary page 11 for all Marines to sign, acknowledging they understood the order being given. Page 11 refers to the section of a Marine’s service record reserved for administrative comments.

“Marines are geared toward action, and our response to improving our culture is no different,” said Marine Corps spokesperson Capt. Casey Littesy, in an email to Military Times on Monday. “While we do not have all the answers, we do know the end state: continue to take steps that foster a culture of dignity, respect, and trust for all.”

The Marine Corps has since worked to implement several institutional changes to improve its culture and the Marine Corps court-martialed seven Marines involved a year after the incident.

Vanessa Guillen

The military has a lot of work to do if it is to stamp out instances of sexual misconduct and enact a culture change, as an April Defense Department study shows.

The Guillen news has sparked national outrage and prompted the Army to review its SHARP program. Created in 2009, the SHARP program is required annually at the unit level and includes videos and other interactive training tools, as well as situational scenarios on sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Fixing its own house

There are many reasons why the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault don’t report incidents. In many cases, they fear retaliation from their peers and their chain of command. In 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed the DoD to address the issue and Congress followed suit in 2016 in its Defense Authorization Act. What resulted was the Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy: Regarding Sexual Assault and Harassment Reports.

“Our most recent data show a significant percentage of military victims of sexual assault indicate they perceive some kind of retaliation after reporting the crime to authorities,” Carter wrote. “The Department will not tolerate divisive behavior at odds with the military’s core values.”

Many are critical of the military’s track record in responding to cases of sexual misconduct.

The family of Guillen has criticized the Army, calling for the creation of a third-party agency for the victims of military sexual harassment to use as a go-around to report their claims.

Thomas and Gallus wouldn’t speak directly to the Guillen murder or about the claims she was sexually harassed beforehand, but Thomas said the work she’s doing will have an impact and potentially create a professional atmosphere where gray-zone behavior won’t occur.

“It’s because people I don’t think are educated to take care of those things that you have to go to the third party,” Thomas said. “What I’m hoping to do is — why do we have to go to a third party?”

Military justice reform

For some, the military isn’t doing enough to punish those who commit sexual harassment or sexual assault.

“The optimist in me tells me we’re at the crossroads because of the Vanessa Guillen situation and the ‘I am Vanessa Guillen’ hashtag that I think there’s pressure now in the military to finally do something, and pressure on Congress to take seriously reform in its justice system,” said Don Christensen, president of the nonprofit Protect Our Defenders, in an interview with Military Times last week. “But we know that reports — we don’t know what they are this year, but they’ve been going up every year.”

Training is part of the solution, but it’s not enough, said Christensen, a retired colonel who served as chief prosecutor for the Air Force from 2010-2014 and spent his entire 23-year military career as either a trial counsel, defense counsel or military judge. His group provides legal counsel to victims of sexual assault and lobbies for reform of the military justice system.

“No one thinks murder’s OK, but it still happens,” Christensen said. “You can train people not to rape or commit sexual assault or sexual harassment. It’s still going to happen.”

The military will never completely be free of sexual misconduct, but holding people accountable is the only real way to get these instances down to “acceptable levels,” Christensen said.

“They [the military] seem to accept that they’re terrible at it and they put all their eggs in the training basket,” Christensen said. “Well, think how bad murder would be if people knew there were no consequences to it and that’s really what’s happening in the military.”

Christensen claimed a huge percentage of sex offenders are never held accountable in the military and that it has to do a better job investigating claims.

“They have to do a better job in prosecutions, they have to reform the system to take commanders out of the role they’re ill-equipped to have — and that is making prosecution decisions,” Christensen said. “Prosecuting sexual assault and rape cases is extremely difficult. It takes years to be good at it. There is not a commander in any service at any level that is qualified to make prosecution decisions. Clear and simple.”

In a letter directed at House and Senate legislators negotiating the final 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, other lawmakers called for, among other things, the creation of a pilot program to test an independent prosecutor for special victim offenses at the Military Service Academies, where cases of sexual misconduct were up some 30 percent from the previous year.

The Navy made it clear that its NPS gray-zone research is only looking to define those behaviors that aren’t currently categorized, “but are nonetheless detrimental to morale and productivity,” said Navy spokesperson Lt. Brittany Stephens in an email to Military Times.

“I would like to emphasize that these negative behaviors are counter to our core values of honor, courage, and commitment,” Stephens said.

Military sexual trauma and veterans

For many service members who have experienced sexual assault in the military, finding the resources to live healthy and productive lives can be difficult.

“After service, many of those with military sexual trauma find themselves at the VA seeking services or picking amongst other non-VA services that they might be able to find depending on their location and situation,” said Teresa Banko, executive director of the Veteran Family Wellness Center in Los Angeles, in an email to Military Times.

It takes a lot of time to schedule and attend VA appointments and delving back into past trauma can be painful for many, said Banko, whose organization is a partnership between the University of California Los Angeles and the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

“The MST survivor’s potential role in family breadwinning and caretaking can preclude both their ability to take part in and the ease of accessing therapeutic services, Banko said. “If a woman or a man is working and/or caring for children and others, opening the deep wounds of sexual trauma can be both emotionally devastating and costly.”

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