The military service academies reported their highest number of sexual assaults ever during the last academic year, after returning to campus following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, since the Defense Department began tracking reports in 2005.

The new high came a year after the academies reported a precipitous drop in sexual assault reports in 2020, as cadets and midshipmen abandoned campus in the spring, according to data released by the Pentagon on Thursday.

All told, cadets and midshipmen reported 131 sexual assaults during the 2020-21 school year, a nearly 50% increase from the previous year. That also represented a 7% increase between from 2019, when students were on campus all year.

Before leaving campus in March 2020, the U.S. Military Academy, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy had been “on track for another year of 122 reports or more,” Nate Galbreath, the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office’s deputy director, told reporters on Thursday.

Additionally, according to the data, another 16 cadets or midshipmen were reported for sexually assaulting non-students during the 2020-21 school year. Of the assaults that year, 46 came from USMA ― doubling the previous year’s count ― along with 33 from USNA and 52 from USAFA.

Of the most recent reports, Galbreath said, 11 suspects were charged, but none were referred to court-martial. Eight of them ended in administrative action and three are ongoing cases.

Galbreath could not say whether the uptick in reports represents an uptick in incidents, however, as his office did not do a prevalence survey for that academic year because of the pandemic.

DoD uses the surveys, which allow respondents to anonymously log their assaults without filing formal reports, to estimate the true, total number of assaults that happen yearly. For example, in the 2017-18 academic year, DoD estimated that the 92 reported assaults represented just 12% of the total assaults perpetrated that year.

For comparison, when the department began tracking this data during the 2005-06 school year, they estimated that the 42 reports represented 13% of the assaults, suggesting that while reports have increased, so has the prevalence of sexual assault.

“We would like to see that 12% increase to 100%. We’d like to see everyone report,” Galbreath said. “But the goal over time is to actually see that prevalence decrease instead of increase and so that’s why we’re investing heavily in prevention.”

As part of its 2020-21 reporting, the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office sent representatives to campuses for focus groups, discussing effective training strategies and advancing an effort to tap into role models among the student population who could most help change the culture.

Cadets and midshipmen named about 17% of their peers as influential, pointing mostly to male upperclassmen.

“So therefore, the best bet for shaping the attitudes and behaviors of men in particular is still working through male influencers,” Ashlea Klahr, DoD’s director of health and resilience leadership at the Office of People Analytics, told reporters.

However, the number of women named as influencers, 37% of the total, outpaced the total number of women at the academies, which is around 27%, showing that female cadets and midshipmen are gaining traction as role models.

Students told the teams that they valued these influencers’ leadership skills and competence, though they questioned whether they always lived up to that standard.

“So for example, we see that 90% of cadets and mids are saying that they expect one another to confront sexist behavior when they see it,” Klahr said. “However, we see that when we ask folks what they actually do, that the behaviors are not in line with those expectations. There’s a gap there. This gap is really an opportunity for the academies.”

The DoD SAPR office recommended that the service academies hire a sexual assault prevention director of sorts, to continuously evaluate programs and make tweaks where needed, Galbreath said, in addition to outside firms his office has hired to evaluate independently.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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