A new Air Force Academy policy shields sexual assault victims from punishment for misconduct charges like underage drinking that could be associated with the attack.
The “safe to report” policy replaces a previous standard that faced heavy criticism called “lighter, later” that put off dealing with the misconduct of sexual assault victims until their abuse case was adjudicated. Victims complained that they faced trauma twice — when they were attacked and when commanders punished them for misconduct they were forced to admit when reporting the attack.
“Absent of egregious circumstances, they won’t be punished for collateral misconduct,” the school’s commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, told the school’s Board of Visitors last week.
The board, which reports to the president and Pentagon on academy issues, has focused on sexual assault at the school since last year when the academy shut down its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office amid a sweeping investigation that found the office was “derelict” in care of victims.
The office’s top manager was fired in the wake of the investigation, and the staff of the office was largely replaced. In February, the Pentagon determined the academy was “out of compliance” with sexual assault guidelines and the school remains under investigation by the Defense Department Inspector General for the office’s problems.
The move to shield victims has had an impact, Goodwin told the board. The academy this month announced sexual assault charges against junior cadet Armis Sunday.
Goodwin said a second female cadet came forward with allegations against Sunday after she was assured that her drinking before the incident wouldn’t result in punishment.
The second accuser has filed a report with the Office of Special Investigations in a case that could result in more trouble for Sunday.
Goodwin said the example shows that the academy will have an easier time rooting out sexual assault if victims don’t fear reprisals for admitting misconduct.
“We’re able to get more information and take care of that situation,” Goodwin said.
In the February Pentagon report, the academy was the only program found to be operating outside Defense Department guidelines, but for the first time in a decade saw its sexual assault numbers fall below one of its peers. Air Force had 33 reported sexual assaults, with Army tallying 50 — nearly doubling its numbers in a year. Navy had 29 reported sexual assaults.
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said he’s worried about falling report numbers because sexual assault is one of America’s most under-reported crimes.
He said the policy change and the way cadets have responded to it show him that cadets are gaining trust in the school and are more likely to report sexual assault.
“We can put out a lot of policies, but this one has been believed and trusted,” Silveria said. “The responsibility is on us now to implement the policy in a manner that continues to convey that trust.”
The academy’s board showed enthusiasm for the change.
Nebraska Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, whose district includes Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, said he’s seen sexual assault victims in his district get punished, including loss of rank, after reporting sexual assault.
“This should be the standard — safe to report,” Bacon said of the academy’s policy. “I think this is the right thing to do and this should be the military policy.”
The academy overall saw its number of misconduct cases spike in the academic year that ended in June, with 163 cadets facing punishments for misdeeds, up from 126 the previous year. Goodwin attributed the spike in misconduct to hazing investigations involving the school’s lacrosse and swimming teams.
The academy has confirmed that athletes and coaches faced discipline in the incidents, but hasn’t described what happened or said how many cadets were involved.
Trevin Campbell, who heads the academy’s revamped sexual assault response office, said the academy is recovering from problems with the office over the past year.
“We’ve had time to settle ourselves in,” Campbell said.
There’s more work to do, though, as scars remain from the 2017 scandal, Campbell said.
“We need to build trust in the community,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx