The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, will hold a one-day stand-down to address alcohol use among cadets, part of an effort to curb problem drinking, sexual assault and harassment on the campus.
Leaders of the three Defense Department service academies told members of a House Appropriations defense subcommittee on Wednesday that the schools are working to get at a root cause of sexual assaults -- alcohol.
According to a report issued Jan. 25 by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, alcohol was a factor in 63 percent of sexual-assault events reported by female students and 56 percent of events reported by men across the academies.
At West Point, where alcohol was thought to have been involved in 52 percent of incidents reported by women and 59 percent reported by men, the school is planning a community day Feb. 25, during which classes and sports will be canceled and alcohol use will be addressed, according to Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams.
Williams said cadets, coaches, instructors, tactical officers and administrators will discuss how to "move forward" to address alcohol use and sexual harassment.
"There are current policies and procedures, but they aren't working," he said, adding that the commandant is conducting a policy review that will address topics including whether the academy has too many locations where cadets can access alcohol.
It's the opposite approach to that of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which is considering whether to serve alcohol at more locations on base to encourage students to remain on the Yard, where they are more likely to consume alcohol responsibly, rather than drinking in downtown bars.
According to the Jan. 25 report, based on a survey of students at the three schools, incidents of unwanted sexual contact -- the term used by the DoD in a questionnaire for students to describe assaults ranging from unsolicited kissing and groping to assault and rape -- increased from 507 in the 2015-2016 school year to 747 in the 2017-2018 academic year, an increase of nearly 50 percent.
This included 273 incidents at West Point; 254 at the Naval Academy; and 221 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. DoD officials said the numbers total 748 due to rounding.
Following the release of the report for the 2015-2016 school year, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered the academies to institute changes to decrease incidents of sexual assault and harassment. The schools developed plans that were introduced before the 2018-2019 academic year began, but the academy leaders said even more needs to be done.
At the Naval Academy, 72 percent of the incidents of unwanted sexual contact reported by women involved alcohol. For men, an estimated 45 percent of the incidents involved alcohol.
Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Ted Carter said the school has instituted a number of programs, including a "Guardian Angel" system that encourages midshipmen to help their peers get home safely after drinking.
"We have identified alcohol as one of the principal root causes of sexual assault. We have been working on this for a year, more so than we ever have ... and getting after this is the most important part. We've seen 49 percent reduction in alcohol-related incidents just this year," Carter said.
The Air Force Academy also has implemented a Guardian Angels program, increased supervision of cadets by company officers and instituted an education program among 3rd class cadets as they approach drinking age, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said she'd like the policies and disciplinary actions to be standardized at all three academies.
"What really are the consequences? ...We know some colleges have taken drug and alcohol abuse very, very seriously, particularly in regards to scholarships," McCollum said.
The superintendents expressed disappointment that many students didn't feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexual assault, as indicated by the report, which showed that just 117 students filed a formal complaint in the 2017-2018 academic year.
They said increasing diversity in the student population and building a culture of respect and trust will help solve some of the issues at the schools.
Binge drinking, defined as having more than five drinks at one time, remains a problem at the academies and among the military services. According to the report on sexual assault, across the academies, 15 percent of women and 32 percent of men said they drank heavily at least once during the covered period.
A third of all troops reported binge drinking, according to the Defense Department's Survey of Health-Related Behaviors, released in July 2018.
Subcommittee members told the school leaders that they plan to hold them accountable for addressing the problems.
"We hold our public institutions, especially the military, to a higher standard. All cadets, especially females, must be made to feel safe and free from any kind of harassment and assault," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.