The rate at which female midshipmen at the Naval Academy say they experienced unwanted sexual contact almost doubled in the past two years, the Defense Department reported Wednesday.
More than 14 percent of female midshipmen reported such contact, which ranges from unwanted touching to rape, in a survey conducted every two years. That's up from about 8 percent from the last survey, but down slightly from older survey results.
The new figure is several percentage points higher than the rates at the United States Military Academy and the Air Force Academy.
The rate for male midshipmen also increased, from 1.3 percent to 2.1 percent.
Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the Naval Academy superintendent, said the school's sexual assault prevention and education programs are among the best in the country, but said his team still has more work to do.
"This kind of toxic behavior cannot be tolerated," he said. "We need to do our very best to provide our future leaders with the knowledge and tools to recognize inappropriate behavior and to take positive, deliberate steps to stamp it out."
Despite sustained attention on the problem, the military academies and the broader military are still struggling to bring down the rates at which service members are assaulted. Victims report that they often feel stigmatized after coming forward, and in some cases face retaliation from their peers and commanders.
The rate at which Naval Academy authorities received reports of sexual assaults ticked up slightly for the fifth straight year — an outcome defense officials have said shows victims have more confidence in the system. The reports are separate from the Defense Department survey results, which allows students to reply anonymously.
Academy authorities received 28 reports of sexual assault in the 2015-2016 academic year, up from 25 the year before.
The rate at which midshipmen said they experienced unwanted sexual contact is lower than that found in a study of civilian colleges cited in the report.
But Protect Our Defenders, an organization that advocates on behalf of military sexual assault victims, said the report illustrates a continued failure by commanders to tackle what the group calls a crisis in the ranks.
"This latest DoD report showing a shocking increase of sexual assaults and high rates of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the military academies should make it clear to Congress and the public that despite decades of promises from military commanders to own and fix this crisis, they have nothing to show for it," said Don Christensen, the retired Air Force colonel who leads the organization.
The Pentagon office that oversees the department's sexual assault prevention work said the report showed that the academies were trying to get the problem under control, but had had a difficult time sustaining successes from previous years.
"We are encouraged by the Academies' continued ability to support those who make the difficult decision to report sexual assault," said Nate Galbreath, the office's acting director. "Building a helpful response system, however, isn't enough. Our leaders in training must understand that prevention is synonymous with military readiness."
The Defense Department says the Naval Academy launched several initiatives in the past year to try to improve its response. Among them is what the academy calls "enhanced shore patrol," which involves officers and midshipmen stationed around Annapolis' downtown bar district on nights when midshipmen are out drinking. The teams keep an eye out for dangerous situations, and can step in to help bar staff if a midshipman gets into trouble.
The academy also trains teams of midshipmen drivers and navigators to run a "tipsy taxi" to pick up classmates who cannot otherwise safely get home. The taxi teams are trained to get in touch with advocates for sexual assault victims if their passengers ask.
The academy also trained midshipmen on abusive relationships using a program developed by the One Love Foundation. The foundation honors Baltimore native Yeardley Love, the University of Virginia lacrosse player who was murdered by her boyfriend, George Huguely.
Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who sits on the Naval Academy's board of visitors, said that the rebound in the rates at which midshipmen reported unwanted contact was disappointing. But he remained confident in the academy's leadership.
"I encourage their efforts to both improve transparency and foster an atmosphere where students are comfortable reporting unwanted contact," he said in a statement.