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Air Force has most sex assault reports among service academies

January 10, 2014 Updated: January 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm
photo - Photo illustration by Mark Reis,  The Gazette
Photo illustration by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

For the fourth straight year, the Air Force Academy had the highest rate of sexual assault reports of any American service academy.

And academy bosses reacted to the report in the way they have in the past, saying the 45 reports - nearly two thirds of all reported assaults among cadets and midshipmen in the past academic year - show confidence in the system.

"The more reports we get, the more we'll be able to hold offenders accountable," said Col. Renni Renner, the school's vice commandant of culture and climate.

With 45 reported incidents in the 2012-13 academic year, there was more than 1 report for every 100 Air Force cadets. Combined, Air Force, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy had 70 reported assaults, 41 of which were "restricted" reports, which allow the victim to get help with out pursuing a criminal investigation.

While Air Force's number dropped from 52 in 2012, the overall number of reports from academies declined, too.

The Air Force statistic is drawing praise rather than scorn from Pentagon leaders who on Friday lauded the academy's programs to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward.

"We want to see more reports," Nate Galbreath, who authored the Pentagon report on assaults at service academies, said at a news conference. "This is an under-reported crime. The challenge we have this year is that without the prevalence number to understand the rate of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, it is hard to interpret this data."

The academy's top general, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, issued a statement saying the big number is a good thing.

"We remain encouraged by the reporting numbers because we believe it reflects victim confidence in our program," she said. "However, our ultimate goal is zero incidents."

The Pentagon report on academy sexual assaults noted innovative programs at the academy to drive reporting, citing "renewed focus, led by the Commandant of Cadets, on leadership development and adherence to standards, as well as the implementation of the Special Victims' Counsel attorneys."

The academy has been working to stamp out sexual assaults in the 4,000-cadet wing since a scandal over mishandled reports led to the canning of top commanders more than a decade ago.

The programs have led to steady pace of reports, and a Pentagon-led focus group study showed that sexual assaults remain a big concern among faculty and staff.

One concern being addressed this year: Cliques that set their own values, ignoring the desires of leaders.

Staff members, whose answers were kept anonymous in the Pentagon report pointed to cliques as a trouble spot.

"I don't know if this is anecdotal or if there's good evidence, but over time there have been particular sports teams that I think that culture is very supportive of being perpetrators and so forth, either heavy drinking and really supporting that and then feeling very, very entitled to go and perpetrate," one Air Force staff member said, according to the report.

Johnson has called for breaking up the cliques by having cadets focus on loyalty to their nation rather than their friends. Renner said work to get that message to cadets is ongoing.

Other concerns, including the academy's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's office running short-staffed have been addressed, Renner said.

So why does the academy seem to roll out a new sexual assault prevention program every couple of years?

"One thing we have to be careful about is that even if we have a program that works, it can get stale very fast," Renner said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered all three major service academies to sharpen their programs to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Superintendents, including Johnson, have until March 31 to brief Hagel on their planned improvements.

One part of the academy's plan to address Hagel's concerns is a reorganization.

Johnson has said she plans to have a single colonel on her staff oversee climate and culture programs, including efforts to prevent sexual assault. Renner said it seems prevention efforts have worked of late. She didn't give a number, but said sexual assault reports are on a downward trend in this current academy year, calling it a "significant" drop.

And, she said, more cadets are reporting sexual harassment, especially harassing language being used in the wing.

"That tells me something is working," she said.

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