Military academies sex assault numbers were steady, then COVID hit

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The number of sexual assaults at the military service academies was lower than the previous academic year, but it likely would have been at least at the same level had schools not sent students home in the fourth quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

The annual report, released Thursday, showed 88 incidents reported by cadets or midshipmen at the academies for the academic year 2019 to 2020.

That is lower than the 122 reported cases for the previous academic year of 2018 to 2019. But a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of reports showed the recent report’s numbers mirroring the previous year’s, with the two diverging when students were sent home in spring 2020.

The reporting for the 2018–2019 school year was the highest it had been since numbers were closely tracked in the current anonymous scientific survey method, begun in 2005.

Maj. Gen. Clement S. Coward, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO, noted that the academies are providing care for victims of sexual assault and have seen improvement in training and education, but much remains to be done.

“We are still far from where we need to be in this mission space,” Coward said.

One area that continues to plague efforts are among cadet peer leaders.

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In the 2017-2018 report, half of women at the academies and one-third of men said that their peer leaders did not enforce academy rules. In the 2018 to 2019 report students said their peer leaders lacked experience, authority and the will to enforce policies and accountability.

That trend continued with this most recent report.

“They don’t have a lot of confidence in their cadet chain of command,” said Nathan Galbreath, SAPRO deputy director.

But they do respect their military officers and senior officials at the academies, he said.

All three academies agreed to conduct pilot climate assessment initiatives to improve peer leadership addressing misconduct.

The report comes amid high-profile sexual assault incidents making headlines and as new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been outspoken about addressing sexual assault and harassment problems in the ranks.

Throughout the military services, President Joe Biden has shown an inclination to remove disciplinary authority for such offenses from the chain-of-command, something senior officials and past secretaries have fought for years.

The 88 reported incidents were only those that took place involving a cadet or midshipman during military service. Eleven separate incidents were reported by students that occurred prior to military service and another 30 incidents were reported by preparatory school students, active duty service members or civilians who alleged such conduct against a cadet or midshipman.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point saw 23 incidents reported in 2019 to 2020, nearly half the number of 52 reported the previous year.

The U.S. Naval Academy saw 27 reported incidents, compared with 31 the in previous year of 2018–2019. The U.S. Air Force Academy listed 38 reported incidents, as compared to 39 the previous year, according to the report.

In addition to the reported number, the surveys used by SAPRO also uses a “prevalence” number. That can show higher rates of people experiencing unwanted sexual conduct than the actual reports listed.

The prevalence number accounts for individuals who experienced such conduct but did not report it as well as the reported cases.

Though reported cases have risen, the prevalence saw a steady decrease in the active-duty force in recent years except for an increase among active-duty women service members in 2018, Galbreath said.

In November, a scathing report of conditions at Fort Hood, Texas, revealed an environment that allowed sexual assault and harassment to proliferate and it was “well known” that the risk for such conduct was persistently high.

Fourteen commanders and senior enlisted personnel were relieved or suspended following the release of the report, including the former III Corps deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt.

The report came in the wake of the killing of Spc. Vanessa Guillen inside an armory. Before she had disappeared the soldier allegedly had experienced sexual harassment, which she had told her mother about.

In a separate case, earlier in February, Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Maranian, head of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was suspended and put under investigation for allegations of “inappropriate touching.”

Meanwhile, also in February, over in the Marine Corps a viral online video posted by an unidentified female Marine alleging that a male Marine who perpetrated a sexual crime against her had been recommended to be retained in the service by his commanding general, despite having admitted to the conduct, sparked outcry and gained the attention of the defense secretary.

Austin told reporters that he would ask her chain of command to ensure someone is looking out for her, he said, “I found the video deeply disturbing. And I’ve asked my staff for additional information.”

The Marine Corps has since said that the male Marine in question “was found guilty, receiving a non-judicial punishment for a violation of Article 117a, the wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He was reduced in rank, received forfeiture of pay, and was processed for administrative separation from service.

But final actions in the administrative separation process are ongoing. And many questions remain.

In 2020, SAPRO officials did not conduct in-person scientific surveys due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will not be conducting those surveys in 2021, either, Galbreath said.

The surveys are conducted anonymously, with pencil and paper with groups of students, sealed by the student and collected by survey proctors on sight.

With that method, Galbreath said, they’re able to get a higher than 80 percent response rate, which is critical in measuring smaller populations, especially subgroups, such as women at the academies or specific graduating year cohorts.

Similar online surveys rarely see a higher than 20 percent response rate.

About

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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