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Pentagon reports lower rate of sex assaults on midshipmen

Incidents of unwanted sexual contact at the Naval Academy fell last year, the Pentagon said Wednesday, and a greater proportion of alleged victims came forward to report that they had been attacked.

Officials said those trends show they are making progress in stamping out sexual violence. But other data in the Defense Department's annual report on sexual violence and harassment at the service academies suggest low conviction rates and high rates of retaliation against those who spoke out.

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In 13 cases at the Naval Academy detailed in Wednesday's report, just one suspect was convicted at court-martial. Meanwhile, 44 percent of students across the academies who reported an attack said they suffered some form of backlashincluding disciplinary measures and "social retaliation."

Susan L. Burke, a Baltimore attorney who has represented hundreds of service members who allege that they were sexually assaulted in civil actions against the military, said a low conviction rate and a high incidence of retaliation discourage victims from coming forward.

"Why would you open yourself to almost certain retaliation when your odds of getting justice are next to zero?" she asked.

Across the service academies, about 8 percent of female midshipmen and cadets experienced unwanted sexual contact in the last academic year, the Pentagon estimates, down from 12 percent two years earlier. For male students, the proportion was 1 percent, down from 2 percent.

The estimates are based on surveys of midshipmen and cadets conducted every other year. The decline works out to nearly 200 fewer victims last year.

Naval Academy officials found some good news in the report but said they would keep working to combat sexual assault.

"This report is not cause for celebration and does not represent in any way a 'finish line,' " said Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman. "While the trends are positive, our hard work and that of the Brigade of Midshipmen must continue."

The Naval Academy drew national attention in 2013 when a female midshipman alleged that she was assaulted by three Navy football players at an off-campus party in Annapolis. The report Wednesday details several previously undisclosed allegations from the last year:

• A male officer who was intoxicated was accused of fondling a female midshipman as she tried to escort him home from downtown Annapolis. The officer no longer works at the academy, Schofield said.

• A male midshipman reported repeated assaults by another midshipman but declined to participate in the military justice process.

•During an unrelated polygraph exam, a male midshipman admitted to getting into the bed of a female midshipman and forcing her to kiss him. He was found guilty in the academy's internal discipline system and kicked out of the school.

Determining the exact prevalence of sexual assaults at the academies, as in the general population, is impossible. Officials say reports capture only a fraction of attacks; they prefer to rely on the results from the biannual survey.

Based on the survey, they estimate that about 8 percent of female midshipmen — or about 85 women experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, down from 15 percent two years ago. Rates for male midshipmen dropped from 2.5 percent to about 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of reports climbed. Twenty-one midshipmen reported sexual assaults in 2014, up from 11 the year before.

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"We believe this pattern, in the short term, demonstrates two points of reference: positive changes in behavior and increased understanding and trust in accountability and response efforts," Schofield said.

The decline in the rate of unwanted sexual contact was mirrored at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Officials estimated that more than 2 percent of women enrolled at the academies were raped and a further 3 percent were the victim of an attempted rape.

The Defense Department report, mandated by Congress, provides a much more detailed accounting of sexual violence than is available for Maryland's civilian colleges. Congress requires institutions of higher education to publicize reports of serious crimes, including forcible sex crimes, but not to conduct surveys.

In 2013, the Johns Hopkins University reported 12 alleged sex offenses; the University of Maryland, College Park reported 19.

While colleges of all kinds have faced questions over sexual violence in recent years, the military academies have been singled out for scrutiny.

The case involving the allegations against the football players led Congress to change the rules for how accusers are treated in the military justice system. In that case, only one of the three suspects was referred for court-martial; he was acquitted.

The woman said she was too intoxicated to recall what happened. Data in the report Wednesday suggests stronger links between alcohol and sexual assault at the Navy Academy than at the other academies.

Sixty–two percent of female midshipmen who told surveyors they experienced unwanted sexual contact said either they or their attacker had been drinking. That compares with 41 percent at West Point and 51 percent at the Air Force Academy.

The Naval Academy has told local restaurants and bars about the standards it imposes on midshipmen, and has held weekly training events on the risks of alcohol abuse. But the Defense Department said academy leaders should do more.

"The actions taken by USNA are helpful but largely focus on individual use of alcohol," the report's authors conclude. They said the academy should also look at how easily midshipmen can obtain alcohol.

The Pentagon announced other steps aimed at driving down the rate of assaults, including targeting its efforts at sophomores, whom officials say experience assaults at higher rates than other class years.

Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, said the latest report shows persistent problems despite efforts to solve them.

"The high rates of sexual assault hurt the reputation of our academies," said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of the organization. "It will hurt the academies' abilities to recruit and retain the best and brightest."

Activist groups are suing the Defense Department for data on how the academies recruit and admit female students so they can better understand the relationship between the relatively low numbers of women who enroll and the levels of sexual violence they face.

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