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'Culture of disrespect' fuels academy sex assaults

Air Force Academy is origin of nearly two-thirds of reported sexual assaults at U.S. military academies

Jan. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2013 marches into Falcon Stadium on May 29 for graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo. A Pentagon report says a culture of bad behavior and disrespect among athletes at U.S. military academies is one part of the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the schools.
The U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2013 marches into Falcon Stadium on May 29 for graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo. A Pentagon report says a culture of bad behavior and disrespect among athletes at U.S. military academies is one part of the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the schools. (Mike Kaplan / Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — A culture of bad behavior and disrespect among athletes at U.S. military academies is one part of the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the schools, according to a new Defense Department report that comes in the wake of scandals that rocked teams at all three academies last year.

Defense officials say the culture permeates the academies beyond just the locker room, saying that students often feel they need to put up with sexist and offensive behavior as part of their school life, according to the report obtained by The Associated Press.

The annual report on sexual assaults at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, the U.S. NavalAcademy in Annapolis, Md., and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., identifies sports and club teams as an area where they need to expand sexual assault prevention training for coaches and faculty. The report is expected to be made public Friday.

Overall, reported sexual assaults at the academies went down, from 80 to 70, during the school year that ended last May. Of those, almost two-thirds were at the Air Force Academy.

It also notes that alcohol is often a factor in sexual assaults, and it urges military leaders to do more to restrict and monitor drinking and liquor sales.

Athletes and sports teams are coming under increased scrutiny in light of separate harassment and assault incidents at all three schools.

At the Naval Academy, three members of the football team faced accusations in a complicated sexual assault case involving a female student at an off-campus party. Charges were dropped against one team member and may be dropped against another. The third is still scheduled for trial.

At West Point, the men’s rugby team was temporarily disbanded, and more than a dozen seniors were demoted and faced other punishment and restrictions, after emails that were derogatory to women came to light. And there was a similar problem with sports team members at the Air Force Academy circulating a document that disparaged women.

Defense officials said Thursday that students view crude behavior and harassment as an almost accepted experience at the academies and that victims feel peer pressure not to report incidents. So the schools are being encouraged to beef up training, particularly among student leaders, to recognize and feel empowered to report or step in when they see unacceptable behavior.

Both the Army and Navy targeted sports team captains, are using field trips to Gettysburg to talk to them about leadership and the need to combat sexual harassment and assault within their ranks.

Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., the superintendent at West Point, said Thursday that the rugby scandal revealed a bad subculture that had existed for years.

“There were people within the organization that became desensitized to the degradation of respect,” Caslen said in an AP interview. “But there were also people in the organization that recognized it as being wrong and elected not to do anything.”

The challenge, he said, is finding ways to train and encourage cadets to have the moral courage to stand up and report such conduct when they see it.

At a meeting with West Point students this week, Caslen said, he talked at length about the rugby team, the punishments that were doled out and what the members learned as the team gets ready to start competing again in the spring. The punishments, he said, not only took away their ability to compete for a time, but also focused on a semester of rehabilitation.

At the end of the meeting, he said, classmates applauded team members for going through the extensive rehabilitation, which including community service work, public discussions of what they did and their remorse, and other programs.

“This is all about leadership,” Caslen said. “Every one of these men and women are going to be in charge of organizations that are mixed gender, and they’re going to be responsible for the command climate of their organization.”

Navy officials took their sports team captains, company commanders and brigade leaders to Gettysburg, Pa., for a retreat last July to discuss leadership, and sexual harassment and assault were central themes.

Officials said that while some programs target sports team leaders, the effort is much broader than that. They also noted that at the military academies, many of the students are involved in sports — either on teams or intramural clubs.

The Navy reported 15 sexual assaults in the last school year, two more than the previous year. It was the only academy that saw an increase in reports, but officials said five of the incidents took place before the victims got to the academy. That has been a growing theme, both at the academies and across the military, as the Pentagon and all the services have pressed for increased reporting of sexual assaults.

Air Force officials also pointed to that trend as one explanation for the larger percentage of reports occurring at their academy. The total number there went from 52 in 2012 to 45 last year. At West Point, the number of reports went from 15 in 2012 to 10 last year.

Both inside and outside the military, sexual assaults are greatly underreported and the Pentagon has worked in recent years to improve victims’ services and encourage military members to report any abuse. According to the report, 11 of the 70 reported assaults happened before the victim arrived at the academy.

It is difficult to compare details of the incidents, because in 41 of the 70 cases victims filed restricted reports, meaning there was only very limited information provided and no formal complaint against another person was filed.

Of the remaining 29 reports, eight involved rapes, seven were sexual assaults, 12 were abusive or wrongful sexual contact, one was sodomy and one was an attempted assault.

Officials have used biennial surveys at the academies to gauge how many unreported assaults there are, and the most recent one in 2012 estimated that there were 525 victims of unwanted sexual contact compared to the 71 that were reported.

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