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In military academies, 1 in 5 female students said they experienced sexual assault

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A cadet waits for the arrival of cadet candidates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2016. The Defense Department's recent survey showed that many young military academy students are still reluctant to come forward about sexual assault and harassment.

The Department of Defense received 155 formal reports of sexual assault at three military academies during the 2021-22 school year — and officials suspect that hundreds more went unreported.

The figure comes from a mandated anonymous survey conducted at service academies to address the likelihood that many young men and women are reluctant to come forward about sexual assault and harassment — an issue that has plagued the military for years.

About 12,700 students are enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. These schools are considered training grounds to shape the future leaders of the military.

The survey found that 21.4 percent of female students and 4.4 percent of male students indicated that they experienced unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, in the past school year — which could mean over 1,100 students were victims but only 14 percent of cadets and midshipmen went on to report the incident to military authorities, the Defense Department estimates.

The grim data, released on Friday, also found significant declines in perceptions of trust toward the academies' senior leaders. When asked whether they trust the military system to protect their privacy and treat them with "dignity and respect" after an alleged incident, only 59 percent of women expressed confidence compared with 72 percent in the 2017-18 school year; only 76 percent of men agreed, compared with 83 percent in the 2017-18 academic year.

"A major failure in trust is at the core of this crisis," said Rose Carmen Goldberg, a California-based lawyer who has represented veterans who survived military sexual trauma.

The Defense Department also showed that formally reported incidents went up by 18 percent in the 2021-22 school year compared with the previous year, when academies received a combined total of 131 reports.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual students were more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact

The survey found that alleged offenders were most often fellow students in the same class year. Cases of sexual assault took place on and off academy grounds, from a dorm room to a party, and most often occurred after duty hours on a weekend or a holiday.

According to the survey, lesbian, gay and bisexual students were significantly more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact compared with their heterosexual peers. And the number of men who self-identified as having experienced unwanted sexual contact rose from over 2 percent in 2018 to 4.4 percent in 2022.

Cases of sexual harassment were significant too, the survey said. Last school year, 63 percent of female students and 20 percent of male students said they experienced sexual harassment — which amounts to nearly 4,000 victims, the Defense Department estimates.

"The current situation is unacceptable and we must improve our culture," said Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the superintendent of the Naval Academy.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Air Force Academy's superintendent, said, "Those found to have perpetrated sexual harassment and violence under my command will be held accountable."

Similarly, Lt. Gen. Steven W. Gilland, the superintendent for the Military Academy in West Point, said "We take any allegation seriously and investigate appropriately using our dedicated resources."

Alcohol was involved in 60 percent of cases of unwanted sexual contact

According to the survey, 60 percent of cases of unwanted sexual contact involved excessive drinking by either the victim, the alleged offender or both.

But the Defense Department also noted that, while service academies have seen progress in reducing excessive alcohol use among students, those efforts did not impact the rate of unwanted sexual contact. Likewise, advocates say it is not the fundamental issue.

"I see alcohol and maybe the permissive policies on alcohol as a symptom of the problem, but not necessarily the crux of the problem," said Josh Connolly, the vice chair of Protect Our Defenders, a group focused on ending sexual violence in the military.

Calls for more accountability

To Connolly, a major driver in the growing assault rate is a lack of accountability for academy leaders to produce tangible progress and support victims.

Over the years, the academies have rolled out various prevention programs and policies to curb sexual assault, but cases are still investigated by the military rather than a third outside party, which Connolly suggests creates a culture of fear.

"If there's a toxic climate and there's no accountability, the problem only gets worse — bystanders don't do the right thing, people don't feel they can come forward, and there's a huge issue of retaliation," he said.

Goldberg from California echoed that sentiment, adding that tangible change needs to include hiring neutral decision makers and care providers, "so that perpetrators know that accountability is more than a buzz word in anti-harassment trainings, and so that survivors will be supported instead of retaliated against every step of the way."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.