A record number of Coast Guard Academy cadets have joined the Cadets Against Sexual Assault club, which advocates for victims of sexual assault and harassment and trains cadets to take reports from their peers.
Currently, about half the student body -- 530 of 1,063 cadets -- are members of CASA. That's compared to the handful of cadets who were involved in 2013, when Shannon Norenberg started as the academy's sexual assault and prevention coordinator.
The academy hit 20% involvement last year, which Norenberg called "the magic number," saying those who were "early adopters" got others on board.
"It explodes much faster at that point," she said.
Ensign Will French, a 2019 graduate who was president of CASA during his final year at the academy, attributed the increased involvement to a change in how the training is administered to cadets. CASA members are trained to take unrestricted reports, which prompt involvement by law enforcement, from their peers and help them get treatment and counseling, as well as restricted reports, which enable victims to access services without reporting the case to law enforcement.
Previously, cadets, who juggle a demanding course load, extracurriculars such as sports and other responsibilities, had to take the training in one four-hour-long session. Now, the sessions are broken up into four, one-hour training sessions during lunchtime.
The increased involvement comes at a time when reports of sexual assault are on the rise at the academy. A survey released last year by the Pentagon showed that almost half of female cadets at the academy said they were sexually harassed, and about one in eight women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, which includes sexual assault, attempted sexual assault and unwanted sexual touching.
The findings were based on an anonymous 2018 gender relations survey completed by cadets, showing 45% of women and 17% of men said they experienced sexual harassment, up from 36% and 11%, respectively, in 2016. The survey also showed that 12.4% of women said they experienced unwanted sexual contact, up from 8% in 2016. The percentage of men saying they experienced unwanted sexual contact was 3.6%, up from 1% in 2016.
The survey is conducted every two years, and the 2018 results revealed that the percentage of cadets experiencing unwanted sexual contact is the highest since the survey began a decade ago.
Norenberg said the numbers, while they show sexual assault is a problem on campus, indicate that more people are reporting, which was a goal of CASA.
She said the academy has a high-risk population, given its demographics. Statistics show that young people, particularly those between the ages of 18 to 34, are at the highest risk for sexual assault, and most cases of sexual abuse are committed by someone known to the victim.
Almost all sexual assault reports come through CASA members, Norenberg said. It's common for cadets to initially make restricted reports, about half of which turn into unrestricted reports, which is when the Coast Guard Investigative Service gets involved.
First-class Cadet Katherine McDonnell, the current president of CASA, said the group has facilitated conversations about what healthy relationships are like, consent and similar topics.
McDonnell said she got involved in the club early in her academy career after some close friends became victims of sexual assault. She thought more could've been done, and that the military environment made it very difficult for victims. She declined to go into specifics to avoid the potential of revealing personal information.
McDonnell said she regularly talks to her peers who often have questions about how to handle a particular situation or give her a hypothetical "like my friend was at a party and this happened."
"I think people are realizing that the problem is there. It's a real issue affecting people they know," she said.
While news of the last year's spike in unwanted sexual contact was "disappointing and frustrating," McDonnell said it's made her more motivated.
"It makes you want to do more," she said.
This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.