Pandemic Thwarted Efforts to Track Sexual Assaults at Military Service Academies

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West Point cadets at the 2015 graduation ceremony.
West Point cadets listen to a speech at the 2015 graduation ceremony. (U.S. Army)

The number of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases reported at U.S. military service academies dropped last school year, but that was most likely due to the pandemic-shortened in-person attendance.

For the first three quarters of the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic struck, the number of cadets and midshipmen reporting a sexual assault that occurred during their military service was nearly equal to the previous year.

In a report released Thursday, the Defense Department said that 73 cadets or midshipmen filed unrestricted or restricted reports of sexual assault during the first three-quarters of the 2019-2020 school year, down slightly from 76 during the same period a year earlier.

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By the time the fourth quarter ended last year, 88 cadets or midshipmen had reported sexual assaults, compared with 122 the previous year.

Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said in a conference call with reporters that the decline at the end of the year was likely due to the abrupt closing of the academies last March, when thousands of cadets and midshipmen were sent home to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.

The statistics suggest that, while the coronavirus pandemic complicated efforts to track and measure the prevalence of sexual assault last year at the Army's U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, there were few signs of progress before the in-person school year ended.

Sexual harassment complaints dropped to 12 in the 2019-2020 school year, down from 17 the previous year, according to the report. And the number of reported sexual assault cases -- including those in which a cadet or midshipman was the alleged perpetrator, or a cadet or midshipman reported a sexual assault that happened before military service -- dropped from 149 in the 2018-2019 school year to 129 last year.

The decline in sexual assault reports during the entire 2019-2020 school year was most acute at West Point, from 52 the previous year to 23. Sexual assault reports at the Naval Academy dropped from 31 to 27, and reports at the Air Force Academy went from 39 to 38.

However, the Pentagon said an anonymous survey typically conducted in person each year to measure the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment had to be canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. The lack of this prevalence survey makes it hard to tell what, aside from the closing of the academies, may have caused the declines, the report said.

The Pentagon will not be able to conduct that survey this year either due to the pandemic, but plans to hold the next survey in April 2022, Galbreath said. Conducting the survey online would have reduced the response rate too much for the data to be reliable, he explained.

Galbreath also said that surveys and focus groups show the culture among students at the academies has a great effect on the experiences they have there. While cadets and mids trust the officers who lead them, such as academy superintendents and commandants, he said they lack the same trust in their fellow cadets serving in leadership positions.

"Our feedback and our focus group data says that cadets and mids don't have a lot of confidence in their cadet chain of command to step up and do the right thing when placed into positions of learning how to lead," he said.

Galbreath said the academies need to do more to prepare cadets and midshipmen in leadership positions to intervene and uphold standards of discipline, dignity and respect.

Until the pandemic-shortened year, the number of sexual assault reports at the academies had increased nearly each year since the 2013-2014 school year, aside from a slight decline in 2015-2016, the Pentagon has found.

The report said that, over the last five years, the prevalence of sexual assault has also increased measurably at college and university populations, and in the United States as a whole.

This shows that stopping sexual assault and sexual harassment is a shared problem across the entire nation, Galbreath said -- one that the military needs to address head-on.

"We all hold ourselves to a higher standard in the Department of Defense," he said. "No one's academy experience should ever include an experience or an incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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