Reports of sexual assaults at the Naval Academy doubled last year, the fourth straight year the number has increased, according to the Defense Department.

But do the findings of the Pentagon report on sexual harassment and assaults mean that such incidents are on the rise in Annapolis? Or do they show that midshipmen have grown more aware of sexual assault and are more likely to report it to authorities?

Academy officials and critics alike hope it's the latter — but say it is impossible to know for certain.

The report released recently by the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office underscores a key difficulty confronting officials as they tackle a problem that has long vexed the service academies and the military as a whole.

While studies and surveys on sexual violence within the ranks have contributed to a growing body of information, neither critics nor officials believe they capture all of the incidents taking place.

Twenty-two assaults were reported at the Naval Academy during the 2010-2011 academic year, double the 11 reported the year before.

But the number of midshipmen subjected to unwanted sexual contact — defined as ranging from unwelcome touching of "sexually related areas of the body" to attempted or completed intercourse — is believed to be much higher.

The Defense Manpower Data Center estimated last year that 271 midshipmen had experienced such contact in 2009-2010, the last year for which data were available.

While the new Pentagon report does not give details of the 22 assaults, the time period it covers would include the case of Patrick Edmond, the second-year midshipman who was found guilty in September of raping a female midshipman in her dorm room in October 2010 and lying to military officials.

Edmond was dismissed from the Navy and sentenced to six months in a military prison. His was the first court-martial for sexual assault at the academy since 2008.

Cmdr. Lynn Acheson took over sexual assault education and response efforts at the academy last year as the number of assaults reported there was doubling. She cannot say whether the actual number of attacks there is increasing or declining.

"I have no way of knowing, because if somebody doesn't come forward and tell me, for whatever reason — and there are probably lots of them — I don't know, because they're not saying anything."

Acheson sees a couple of factors leading to increased reports. First, she says, the midshipmen "understand much better now what constitutes unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment."

"Two," she adds, "I think they've seen the system work. And they feel comfortable coming into my office knowing that we're going to, to the absolute extent possible, maintain their privacy and the confidentiality and get them the help they need to work through this."

The number of sexual assaults reported within the 4,600-member Brigade of Midshipmen has climbed in each of the past four years. After a recent low of five reports in 2006-2007, there were six in 2007-2008, eight in 2008-2009, 11 in 2009-2010 and 22 in 2010-2011.

The number of midshipmen estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact also is growing. The 271 estimated in the Defense Manpower Data Center's 2010 Service Academy Gender Relations Survey was up from 155 in 2007-08, which was up from 113 in 2005-2006.

More than 16 percent of female midshipmen said they had experienced such contact in 2009-2010. Of those, 99 percent said the offender was male, and 90 percent said the offender was a fellow midshipman.

Only 8 percent of the women said they had reported the incident to a military authority or organization.

The report says they gave several reasons for keeping the incident to themselves: feelings of discomfort, shame and embarrassment; doubts that their report would be kept confidential; fears of gossip and damage to their reputations; and concerns about the impact a report would have on their careers.

At least one critic suggests another reason. Greg Jacobs, policy director for the New York-based Service Women's Action Network, says punishments for sexual assault at the academy are insufficient.

Of the seven cases described in the Pentagon report, four ended with some sort of sanction.

The case of a fourth-year midshipman accused of raping a female classmate on academy grounds ended with his dismissal from the academy. A first-year midshipman accused of aggravated sexual assault of a second-year female midshipman was allowed to withdraw from the academy voluntarily.

A prospective applicant who was accused of aggravated sexual assault of a first-year female midshipman on academy grounds was not considered for admission. An ensign accused of aggravated sexual assault of a third-year female midshipman was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and issued a letter of reprimand.

"So here you have people that have perpetrated crimes, they've been arrested, they've gone through a judicial process and they come out the other end just simply either being kicked out of the school or giving them bad paper," Jacobs said.

Academy spokeswoman Deborah Goode said in a statement that the academy is "very aggressive" in prosecuting sexual assaults — "even more so than civilian authorities," she said, "because of the impact of this crime on unit cohesion, discipline and mission effectiveness.

"In the civilian court system," Goode said, "most of those cases would never have gone to trial and would have been dismissed with no punishment whatsoever, so the sheer number of cases is evidence of our serious commitment to deterring criminal activity."

The academy established the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education program, or SHAPE, amid a rash of high-profile cases in the mid-2000s. Starting with Plebe Summer, midshipmen receive briefings, guest speakers and peer-led sessions tied to the academy's leadership, ethics and law curriculum, which continues throughout their four years in Annapolis.

"We teach them to be on the lookout, what are the danger signals you might see from somebody that might be a sexual predator," said Acheson, who heads a five-person office as the academy's sexual assault response coordinator. "Help them identify risky behavior and how to go out in a group with friends, keep an eye on, be an active bystander, if you see somebody you know, or even don't know, that looks like they might be getting in trouble."

Acheson, who came to the academy straight from commanding the guided missile destroyer USS Gonzalez, said the effort is aimed not only at reducing incidents at Annapolis, but at preparing midshipmen for their careers as Navy and Marine Corps officers.

"When they get out in the fleet, they may have to deal with something like this right away," she said. "They report on board that ship or that squadron and a young seaman or somebody who works for them comes up and says, 'Ma'am or sir, I need to talk to you,' they have some idea of what's going on and are able to deal with this correctly."

The Pentagon report found the academy to be in compliance with three Defense Department priorities — institutionalizing prevention strategies, increasing victim confidence in reporting and improving accountability — and in partial compliance with a fourth: improving response to sexual assault.

On the last priority, the report's authors described the academy's sexual assault prevention and response staff as "dynamic" and "well-organized," and said the academy had developed a "careful, considerate approach to victim support."

But they said staff with the Midshipman Development Center, which provides clinical services to the brigade, needed to be made aware of their duty to report sexual assaults disclosed during treatment. And they said the academy should improve the "challenging and time-consuming process" for obtaining sexual assault forensic examinations.

They described the experience of a midshipman who was made to wait at a local hospital for four hours before being told that no one was available to conduct the examination. Earlier reports documented waits of nine hours and visits to multiple locations to obtain an examination.

"Given recent budget cuts in the civilian community," they write, the academy "must identify a solution for reliable, expedient" examinations.

Lisae Jordan read the passage with interest.

"That's an important issue that we need to address, but I don't think it's exclusive to the Naval Academy — I think that's in Maryland generally," said Jordan, general counsel of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The coalition is the umbrella organization of the state's rape crisis centers, which offer services to midshipmen and other military members as well as civilians. Jordan says the organization gets occasional referrals and questions from the Naval Academy — "and we can also reach out to them when we have questions."

Jordan said her reaction to the report was mixed.

"On the one hand they have started some interesting programs, they're involving peers, they're doing prevention training, and they certainly have some expert staff and expert consultants," she said. "At the same time, it's an enormous increase … in the number of reported sexual assaults."

Acheson said she is reviewing the report. She said much of it meshes with her own review of the program as she found it when she arrived, and that her office has been working on the challenges the authors identified.

"I'm always looking for new ways to get the message across to the midshipmen," she said. "Try out new ideas and just make the program better than it already is. ... I don't want to get stale here."

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