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Sexual assault rates decrease at military service academies

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Rates of unwanted sexual contact at the military service academies declined in 2014, according to a report released Feb. 11 by the Defense Department.

The annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the military service academies estimates that overall rates decreased for both men and women, indicating that nearly 200 fewer sexual assaults occurred at the academies in 2014 than in 2012.

“The academies have been working hard on prevention,” said Dr. Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. “Indications are that academy leadership focus on this program is contributing to an overall safer climate.”

The report is a congressionally mandated annual assessment of the military’s service academies.

Methodology

According to Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, during even-numbered years, cadets and midshipmen respond to a voluntary and anonymous survey. As the deputy branch chief in the survey division at the Defense Research, Surveys and Statistics Center, she oversaw the service academy gender relations survey for 2014.

“We got about a 66 percent response rate for the three DOD academies, and that’s about 82 percent of women and 63 percent for men for the response rates,” she said.

In addition, the academies conduct self-assessments of their progress on eliminating sexual assault and sexual harassment, Galbreath said.

In odd-numbered years, the assessment involves visits to each of the academies by members of DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention Response Office and the service sexual assault prevention response programs, as well as focus groups conducted by the Defense Manpower Data Center, he said.

For the site visit, the DOD interviews academy sexual assault response coordinators, victim advocates, criminal investigators, attorneys, and medical providers to assess how they've been performing their duties, what problems they have encountered, and the things that they do to push the program forward and make progress.

“Then we make recommendations where we see that there's potential for improvement, or we identify things that we think are best practices and we try to share those with the other service academies,” he explained.

Because the survey is voluntary, there is potential for the pool of respondents to be fundamentally different from those who choose not to participate, Van Winkle added.

“For this particular survey, because we get such high response rates, we have very good confidence in our estimates based on the scientific weighting that we do and the adjustments that we do based on that scientific rating,” she said.

Increase in Unrestricted Reporting

While there was a decrease in the estimated prevalence of sexual assault, the academies received fewer formal reports of sexual assault during the same time period. However, this year, unrestricted reports outnumbered restricted reports. A victim who chooses to make an unrestricted report engages the military justice process and participates in an independent investigation.

“Victims who decide on an unrestricted report might be more confident that we'll be able to support and care for them as they go through the challenges of participating in the justice system,” Galbreath said. “However, we see any report as beneficial, as it allows us a greater opportunity to provide victims with the support and services they need to restore their lives.”

One element that may be driving the increase in unrestricted reports is the introduction last year of the special victims’ counsel program, also known as the victims’ legal counsel program in the Navy and Marine Corps, he said.

“Academy cadets and midshipmen are eligible for this program, and can have an attorney represent them throughout the military justice process. Our surveys indicate this service is highly valued by survivors,” he said.

Continuum of Harm

This year’s report included an anonymous survey of cadets and midshipmen. “While survey estimates indicate there were fewer sexual assaults this past academic year, responses also suggest that sexual harassment remains a problem area for the academies,” said Van Winkle.

“All of these behaviors fit into a continuum of harm,” she added.

Sexual harassment may act as a “green light” for potential offenders. They may get an impression they can behave any way they’d like in a permissive environment. It can also be used by the offender as both a way to groom potential victims or to keep a victim's behavior in check.

“Sexist jokes and other unacceptable gender-based behavior can be used to test boundaries with a victim … When unit members refuse to tolerate this and shut down the offender or any person who’s behaving inappropriately, it sends a strong message,” Galbreath said. “People that commit sexual assault aren't particularly brave folks -- they're looking for the path of least resistance. When they're called to task for sexual harassment and other grooming behaviors, it lets an offender know the military is the last place they want to be.”

Though the report contains signs of progress, the department will continue to combat these problems, Galbreath said.

“This is something that we're in for the long haul; we want this problem to go away,” he said. “We don't want people to believe that this is part of the military experience. When people volunteer to do the world's most dangerous work, they deserve the safest environment possible to do it in.”

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