Air Force releases academy sexual misconduct study

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
Less than 1 percent of male cadets and 5 percent of female cadets at the Air Force Academy have been involved in known sexual assault allegations over the 10-year period examined, according to the report on academy sexual misconduct released June 19.

The report acknowledged that sexual assaults are underreported.

A special working group, led by Air Force General Counsel Mary L. Walker, has been investigating reports of alleged incidents of sexual assault since early this year when several allegations were made public.

The group was chartered by Secretary of the Air Force Dr. James Roche to investigate the academy’s policies, programs and practices, Walker said. The group made 36 recommendations, reported 43 findings and identified 12 areas requiring further study.

“We did not find any systematic ignorance of the issue, any systematic avoidance by leadership, and we did not find any wholesale maltreatment of cadets who brought forward allegations,” Walker said. “Instead, we found a fairly extensive comprehensive program to deter sexual assaults that had been put in place in 1993.”

That program and some cultural aspects of academy life were problematic, however, Walker said.

Among the recommended changes, the academy needs to:

-- Narrow its definition of sexual assault.

-- Investigate all allegations of assault rather than letting the victim decide what is done in most cases.

-- Refine the way it responds to incidents of assault and how it informs cadets on the issues of alcohol use and consent.

-- Tighten up dormitory supervision and visitation rules.

Since 1993, Office of Special Investigations and command officials have investigated 61 allegations, including 40 that were cadet-on-cadet incidents. About 40 percent of the cadet-on-cadet cases involved the use of alcohol, and 55 percent took place in a dormitory.

“We found that many of the cadet-on-cadet cases involved some consensual activity before the activity the victim alleged was an assault,” Walker said. “When you have dormitories, alcohol and consensual activity -- with fuzzy issues about what is consent -- you can see the problem that is often encountered.”

The group also found that the four-degree class structure of the academy placed fourth-class cadets, the freshmen class, in a more vulnerable position with respect to upperclassmen. According to the report, 53 percent of the victims of investigated cadet-on-cadet cases were freshmen cadets, whereas they represent only 29 percent of the entire cadet population.

“We made recommendations to … give more responsibility to upperclassmen for exercising a proper role and providing mentoring,” Walker said. “We want the upperclassmen to exercise authority, but it has to be the proper authority, and we recognize it’s a rare few who would abuse that authority.”

Upperclassmen are also going to be held accountable for inappropriate behavior that occurs in their presence pursuant to changes called for by the secretary and chief of staff, Walker said.

“If a senior cadet walks into a party where (under-aged) cadets are drinking, he or she knows right away there’s a problem that has to be dealt with because they’re going to be held responsible if an incident occurs,” she said.

One of the group’s agenda items was to look into why many of the allegations never made it to courts-martial. There were several reasons why many of the cases could not be prosecuted. One of them was lack of information available to commanders because of an academy-unique process known as “victim control.”

The process that was set up in 1993 was designed to encourage confidentiality and reporting of crimes for the victims, Walker said. Victims were free to provide as much or as little information as he or she wanted -- including the name of the alleged assailant. The victim thus had a large say in whether or not the case would be investigated or prosecuted.

“(Commanders) could order an investigation, but often the (they) didn’t have sufficient information to do so,” Walker said. “We felt (the victim-control process) was problematic because it allowed alleged assailants, in some cases, to move forward in the system and never undergo an investigation.”

The most challenging problem for academy leaders will be overcoming an “eroding culture” that promotes behavior counter to Air Force standards, Walker said.

“We have some cadets who come to the academy out of families and backgrounds that are very consistent with the Air Force values and culture,” she said. “We have others who come out of a culture that is very relativistic -- they don’t believe in right and wrong and don’t see a problem with what we see as ‘problematic behavior.’

“As one of our witnesses told us, the Air Force challenge is taking kids who come out of a ‘Beavis and Butthead’ culture and moving them into a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ culture,” Walker said. “They will be presented with the (Air Force’s) standards, and if they can meet them they will become officers. If they can’t, they won’t.”