WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday angrily chastised military officials for not doing enough to address the “crisis” of sexual assault at the three service academies, noting that their promises for change have not resulted in better results so far.
“After a decade-plus of concerted efforts to address sexual harassment and assault, the problem has only gotten worse,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the issue. “This isn’t a blip, a ‘me too’ bump, or some accident. It’s a clear illustration of a destructive trend and systemic problem.”
The event — the second of the day by a congressional committee on the issue — came about two weeks after the release of the latest report from the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The document found that the number of cadets reporting unwanted sexual encounters has increased almost 50 percent since 2016, to 747 incidents last year.
Officials said the reporting rate of sexual assault for women at the academies is nearly four times higher than that of the active-duty force, and nearly three times higher for male cadets than their active-duty peers. The figures are closer to other colleges across the country, though military members repeatedly said they hold their members to higher conduct standards than that population.
Unlike in previous years, where defense officials blamed the rise to changes in reporting assaults and better awareness of the problem, superintendents of the academies said the figures represent a failure to address underlying cultural issues at the institutions.
They listed a host of new changes in the past year, including more pre-enrollment character checks, monitoring social media posts for problematic behavior, stricter alcohol rules and expanded training for cadets and leaders about the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“We can not tolerate this behavior, and we will not stop until we get this right,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director for force resiliency at the department’s personnel and readiness office.
But outside experts questioned whether that is enough.
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said only a small percentage of sexual assault charges result in a conviction, even though Defense Department officials estimate that less than 2 percent of such charges are baseless.
“Failure to deal with these cases means hundreds of sex offenders are being commissioned into the active-duty force every year,” he said. “There is a perception among the individuals we talk to that leadership does not really care about this problem.”
Defense officials disputed that, but also struggled to come up with additional answers to the problem. When asked if they needed additional resources or congressional authorities, all three superintendents said they could not think of any such needs.
Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said that puts the responsibility squarely on them to find faster solutions.
"The academies have put enormous resources and attention toward improving sexual assault prevention and response,” he said. “Nonetheless, the problem seems to be getting worse.
“While this is a multi-faceted and difficult issue, one thing is clear: the results of this survey are unacceptable and the leadership of the military service academies must redouble their efforts in order to fix this.”
Reporter Tara Copp contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.