The military service academies saw an increase in sexual reports during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to a report published Thursday.
The schools received a total of 149 sexual-assault reports, up from 117 received the prior year, according to the biennial "Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies."
"This should not be interpreted as an increase in crime rate, as the next prevalence survey won't be conducted until the next academic year," the Pentagon said in a statement accompanying the report. "The increase in reporting cannot be interpreted until next year's prevalence survey, which estimates rates of unwanted sexual contact."
The data is comparable to rate of sexual-assault reports observed in civilian colleges, officials said. "However, the DoD holds itself, and the academies, to a higher standard of behavior."
Of the 149 reports received, 130 were made by and or against "actively enrolled cadets and midshipmen for incidents that occurred during military service," the report states. Those 130 reports were made by 122 cadets or midshipmen, five active-duty members and three civilians.
Each school received both restricted and unrestricted reports. In a restricted report, an individual discloses a crime confidentially without triggering an official investigation or notification to his or her chain of command.
The remaining 19 reports came from members who experienced a sexual assault prior to joining the service or at a military prep school, said Dr. Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, or SAPR.
"It includes the incidents that occurred to a cadet or midshipman prior to joining their service. ... It also includes reports from our prep schools that are on different campuses, but we capture it all," Galbreath told reporters at the Pentagon.
"But the 122 ... cited in the report that came out this morning, those are just cadet and midshipmen victims that came forward making a restricted or unrestricted report," he added.
According to the survey, 28.5% of female students said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact during the 2018-2019 school year, up from 21.6% in the 2016-2017 year. By comparison, 26.5% of civilian college women said they had experienced unwanted contact, according to a U.S. campus climate survey also outlined in the report.
Roughly 5.8% of males at the military academies said they experienced nonconsensual sexual contact during the 2018-19 school year, up from 3.3% the previous year. Meanwhile, 7.1% of men at civilian higher education institutions reported unwanted sexual contact during the 2018-19 school year.
"The department recognizes the challenge of combating sexual assault in the military service academies and the high cost of not succeeding," said Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency.
"Our academies produce our future leaders. At every turn, we must drive out misconduct in place of good order and discipline," she said in an emailed statement. "Our data last year, and the findings from this year's report, reflect the progress we have made in some areas, and the significant work that remains. We will not falter in our efforts to eliminate these behaviors from our academies and to inculcate our expectation that all who serve are treated, and treat others, with dignity and respect."
The Pentagon for years has attempted to improve its sexual assault and harassment prevention programs across the military, as well as the services' handling of reports and prosecutions.
But the Defense Department's fiscal 2018 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military released in May 2019 found that roughly 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault during fiscal 2018 -- up from an estimated 14,900 in 2016.
On the heels of the latest report, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill introduced legislation Thursday to make it easier for military personnel to report sexual assault.
Reps. Jackie Speier (D-California), chair of the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Military Personnel, and Don Bacon (R-Nebraska) unveiled the "Safe to Report Act," which would ensure protections for members who fear retaliation or self-incrimination should they report a sexual-assault incident.
"The ongoing increase of sexual assault in our military is a national failure and disgrace, made more egregious by the steady decline in survivors of sexual assault feeling confident that there is a fair system in place," Speier said in a release. "This bill will address the culture of fear that breeds silence and prevents survivors from speaking out. The Department of Defense's priority needs to be holding perpetrators of sexual assault accountable, not dinging survivors for minor infractions like curfew violations."
The bill aims to safeguard personnel from punishment they would face for misconduct that might be uncovered during a sexual-assault investigation -- such as underage drinking, possession of alcohol, fraternization or violating curfew -- that occurred during the time frame of the assault, she said.
Speier's office said Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, intend to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.
"We must believe survivors, and the bipartisan 'Safe to Report Act' will ensure that survivors can come forward without having to fear punishment for minor offenses," Gillibrand said.