The military service academies saw the highest level of estimated instances of sexual assault or harassment since at least 2006, according to an annual Defense Department report, while one in five female students reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, an anonymous survey found.
“Our numbers indicate that this is the highest sexual assault estimated prevalence rate for both women and men at the military service academies since the department started measuring this in 2006. These numbers are extremely disappointing and upsetting,” Defense Force Resiliency executive director Beth Foster said Friday.
The Pentagon conducts an anonymous prevalence survey every two years to estimate the number of unwanted sexual contact instances. The 2021-22 survey is the first conducted since 2018, since coronavirus precautions resulted in the cancellation of the survey in 2020.
About 1,136 students attending the Army, Navy and Air Force service academies, around 21% of women and 4% of men surveyed, said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the 2021-2022 school year, the office’s deputy director, Dr. Nathan Galbreath, said. However, only 155 cadets and midshipmen reported a sexual assault had taken place during their service, a rise of 34 cases, or 18%, from the previous year.
The prevalence survey, which tracks only the instances and circumstances of unwanted sexual contact and not official reports, recorded numbers that are far higher than the number of reported incidents. In total, the Defense Department received 206 reports during the year, which includes prep school students and cadets or midshipmen who reported incidents that had taken place before they entered service.
The largest increase in reports was seen at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland, where 61 reports of sexual assaults were made, double the amount of cases reported of the prior year. In the 2020-2021 academic year, the Naval Academy reported 33 cases, the lowest of all three schools that year.
At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, the cases appeared to slightly decrease from the previous year, dropping from 46 reports last year to 42 in the 2021-2022 school year. At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the number of cases reported stayed the same from the previous year, with 52.
Reporting cases of sexual assault is often just the begining. Unrestricted reports — those that are not submitted confidentially — can trigger an investigation and may result in disciplinary action. According to the report, 77 investigations associated with 80 sexual assault reports were opened this year. Between the number of previously pending cases, and those from this academic year, investigations into 151 accused attackers were completed — but in only 61 of those cases had decisions been made about whether to charge, discipline, or pursue other action against offenders.
Among the 43 individuals for whom charges were considered, none of the accusations were determined to be unfounded by legal or command review, and sexual assault charges were substantiated for 23 of those accused. Only nine faced a court martial, three received administrative discharges, and 11 were dealt “other adverse administrative actions.”
In addition to this year’s report, the prevalence survey is used by the department to better understand the circumstances around assaults and why they remain so underreported.
The survey found that women and men were more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact in their second year in the academy. Students also reported that alcohol also plays a large role. Over half of the instances of unwanted sexual contact in some way involved alcohol for 61% of women and 58% of men who participated in the survey.
“This problem may be getting worse”
“Our cadets and midshipmen, our future military leaders, should be able to learn and grow in an environment free of sexual assault and harassment,” Foster said. “And while these numbers are troubling, it is important to acknowledge that we’ve had a number of prior indicators that tell us that this problem may be getting worse.”
In response to the “alarming increase” indicated in the department’s findings, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent a memorandum to secretaries of the military detailing action items to address the rise in sexual assault. Those directives include issuing a policy that requires the physical separation of survivors and alleged perpetrators. According to the memo, “to the extent practicable, cadet and midshipman survivors and alleged perpetrators of sexual assault to complete their coursework without taking classes together or being in close, physical proximity during mandatory activities.”
However in a briefing, DOD officials acknowledged that class separation is workable, but preventing interaction outside of the classroom at the service academies where students largely live in the same dormitory and eat at the same dining hall, is not as “practicable.”
Additionally, the academies will work with their respective branch’s Judge Advocates General office to educate cadets on the changes expected to be made to military justice policies including the creation of the Office of Special Trial Counsel which will have the authority — instead of the academies’ superintendents — to decide how to move forward with cases of sexual assault. The new military justice reforms go into effect in December.
The numbers have continued to rise despite efforts by lawmakersl and advocacy groups to reduce the rate of sexual assault at the three academies. In 2017, CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell reported that cadets at the Air Force Academy faced retaliation for reporting, and that often the school attempted to cover up the circumstances surrounding reports.
In response to the CBS News investigation, then-superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said he was “disgusted” by the reports, but stopped short of saying the academy had problems handling sexual assault. “I don’t think there are problems, and let me tell you why. It is that you talked about some of the reporting of the numbers of sexual assaults. I want numbers of reports to go up. I know that doesn’t make sense right on the surface, but I want reporting to go up … so that I can provide that care, provide that support,” Silveria said.