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About half of female US Air Force Academy cadets were sexually harassed during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a recently released DOD report on sexual harassment and assault at the nation's military academies. US Air Force Academy photo.

Nearly half of female US Air Force Academy cadets—46 percent—were sexually harassed during the 2017-2018 academic year, though only one formal report was received by the school, a Defense Department report on the incidence of sexual harassment and violence at the nation’s three military academies found.

This is on par with findings from the other academies, with 48 percent of female cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point and 56 percent of female midshipmen from the US Naval Academy saying they were harassed.

The report, which includes service academy self-assessments, school-specific summaries, and a DOD survey of students from all three schools, also found that 15.1 percent of USAFA female cadets said they experienced unwanted sexual contact—whose definition, for survey purposes, ranged from being sexually touched without their consent to rape—in the past academic year. The number is up from 11.2 percent in the 2016 report. The report also states female Air Force Academy juniors face a disproportionate risk of being assaulted. However, only 13 percent of all female academy cadets said they reported these attacks.

West Point—16.5 percent of whose women said they experienced unwanted sexual contact—was the only other service academy that saw an increased rate among its women since the 2016 academic year.

The report also noted “concerning climate-related trends” observed at the academy, including:

  • Decreased willingness from cadets of both sexes to call out fellow cadets whose gender-related rhetoric “crossed a line,” as compared with the previous period.

  • Decreased willingness from cadets of both sexes to seek institutional help to stop their classmates from engaging in sexual harassment, as compared with the previous period.

  • A decrease in the percentage of female cadets who believed academy officers’ actions and speech “set good examples,” as compared with the previous period.

  • Fewer female cadets expressed faith that senior leadership at the school “made honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual assault and harassment,” as compared with the previous period.

“The data clearly indicates we are falling short of what the nation expects and what our service members deserve from their leaders,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a Feb. 4 statement provided to Air Force Magazine. “Leaders establish culture, enforce standards, and ensure the safety of those entrusted to their care. This data will inform our review and adjustment of programs and policies.”

Air Force Academy Superintendent Jay Silveria said the institution is "fully engaged in the fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault” at the school. 

“Harm to any one of us is unacceptable, and we will not rest until every cadet at the academy is in an environment where they can focus solely on their professional and personal development as exceptional leaders of character in the US Air Force,” he said.

WHAT’S BEING DONE

In response to DOD’s findings from the 2016-17 academic year, the report said, USAFA has:

  • Developed bystander intervention training aimed at teaching cadets why stepping in to prevent sexual assault matters and how to do so “safely and successfully.”

  • Provided cadets more chances to learn about sexual assault prevention and response.

  • Used “publications and training sessions” to spread the word about “sexual harassment reporting resources”

  • Provided training to officers preparing to lead cadet squadrons so they understand the survey data and can formulate a plan to respond to challenges highlighted.

The report also itemized and explained action plans each service academy put into place in time for the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, centering around “prevention, improved reporting, enabling a culture of respect,” and promoting “a more disciplined force.” While the 2017-2018 survey results included in the report don’t reflect the impacts of this DOD-directed planning, a release about the report said, the schools are using the 2017-2018 survey findings “to target their efforts.” It also noted that DOD is providing resources to help supplement and fortify the school’s efforts.

In response to DOD’s efforts to prevent sexual harassment, assault, “and other readiness-impacting behaviors,” the report said the academy took steps including, but not limited to:

  • Undertaking an ongoing revision of the “sexual assault curricula” that it delivers to students every year.

  • Requiring freshmen to undergo a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Basic Cadet Training within their first 10 days on base.

  • Requiring sophomores to undergo cadet Bystander Intervention Training.

  • Requiring that juniors be briefed by a subject matter expert to help them understand their personal duties in preventing and responding to sexual assault.

  • Requiring that seniors be briefed by a subject matter expert on their duties to lead prevention efforts.

  • SAPR volunteer recertification

  • Developing a Hazing Education and Prevention Program, with cadets from the school’s lacrosse team serving as instructors.

  • Hiring Violence Prevention Integrators tasked with coordinating prevention programs, monitoring prevention initiative outcomes, and collaborating with other relevant stakeholders.

The academy also took steps to remove barriers to reporting sexual assault and harassment, including publishing a policy to clarify the academy’s stance on victim and witness collateral misconduct, and emphasizing the academy’s zero tolerance policy for “retaliation, reprisal, ostracism, and maltreatment against victims.” The school’s Equal Opportunity office also established a satellite center within walking distance of dorms, with after-hours phone staffing to make reporting more convenient.

To educate cadets on responsible alcohol consumption, the academy now requires sophomores to go through alcohol training and provides training to local bartenders in “bystander intervention and laws concerning sexual assault and intoxication,” among other steps.

The academy also created the Cadet Respect Initiative, providing training on awareness and implicit bias to cadets, faculty, staff, directors, and vice directors, and it implemented the Commandant of Cadets’ 47-Month Cadet Development Plan, with plans to reassess and reform it each year. The school has formed focus groups and other findings “to implement necessary changes in curriculum, communications, and prevention interventions.”

Every person at the academy tasked with supporting victims also received, and had to acknowledge receipt of, a memo from Silveria that reiterated “the Privacy Act and guidance in AFI 90-6001” and outlined expectations for protecting the privacy of victims, the report said.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

In a Jan. 31 press release about the report, James Stewart, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said DOD is “resolved” to finding solutions to the issues highlighted in the report.

Silveria said the academy “will aggressively” endeavor to move the nationwide conversation about stopping sexual assault and harassment forward “with the support of” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. He also said USAFA will attend an April 2019 summit with Wilson, “other service Secretaries, civilian college and university leaders,” US military and service-academy leaders, experts, and congressional legislators “to discuss the scourge of sexual harassment and assault facing colleges and universities.”

“We are excited to attend this summit as we focus on best practices and continue to work toward a culture that will not tolerate harm to one another, where survivors are empowered to come forward, and where anyone violating our values is held accountable,” he said.

DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Director US Navy Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt stressed the urgency of strengthening attempts “to promote and sustain respectful climates,” calling unwanted sexual contact “one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military” in the report release.

Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness’ Office of Force Resiliency, said in the same release that the office is “disheartened” that efforts didn’t yield the outcomes desired, but is “not deterred.”