Pentagon Says Increase in Reporting of Sex Assaults at Service Academies Is a Good Sign

The number of sexual assault reports skyrocketed at the three US military academies last year, but the Department of Defense says that's actually a positive step.
January 8, 2016, 11:50pm
The United States Military Academy at West Point. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

During a year in which a relatively great deal of attention was paid to sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, the number of reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the United States service academies skyrocketed.

The Department of Defense reported that the number of sexual assault reports rose 55 percent during the 2014-2015 school year; included in the data were statistics from the United States Naval Academy, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the United States Air Force Academy. Together the three institutions had 91 reports filed during the year, 49 of which were at the Air Force Academy. During the 2013-2014 academic year, there were 59 reports.

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The military was quick to spin the new statistics as a sign of "growing trust" in the campuses' reporting systems, which have come under scrutiny in recent years for not being transparent or responsive enough to victims' complaints.

"We've seen a lot of the progress we expected to see when [then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] last year ordered the superintendents to take sexual assault prevention and response programs under their direct supervision," Nathan W. Galbreath, a Defense Department advisor in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said.

The report cites new practices put in places at the various academies to increase awareness and prevention of sexual assaults, including having athletic teams at the Air Force Academy sign Code of Conduct pledges and allowing cadets at West Point to offer feedback directly to the school's superintendent.

Galbreath noted that this particular report shows an increase in the number of cadets who have been victimized and are willing to come forward. A separate, anonymous survey that cadets take in the spring, which asks whether they have been victimized over the past 12 months, will provide a better indication of whether the number of assaults has increased or decreased. According to Galbreath, the last survey showed a decrease in respondents saying they had been victimized.

Galbreath also said that the academies should devote the same resources to preventing harassment as they have to preventing assault, noting that sexual harassment claims went from 20 to 28 between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.

West Point said in a statement that an increased focus on "command climate" helped lead to greater reporting of assault, and that the academy had created a supportive environment free of retaliation for victims.

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"Our ultimate goal is to continue to foster increased reporting, build a climate that is inclusive and safe for everyone at West Point, and as this develops, we'll see the convergence of the lines where incidents of sexual violence and incident reports are one to one," the statement said.

The issue of sexual assaults has plagued the military beyond its service academies, leading to calls from lawmakers like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for greater prevention, reporting, and transparency. Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced that two-thirds of women in the military who reported they'd been sexually assaulted suffered professional retaliation, and that efforts to combat the problem had proven difficult.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen