Study faults sex-assault data at military colleges

The Baltimore Sun

The nation's military academies have taken significant steps to address allegations of sexual misconduct but are inconsistently reporting incidents to Congress, according to an independent report that calls on policymakers to set reporting standards.

The report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office also suggests that a significant number of assaults and harassment incidents are going unreported by students at the academies. The study, covering a three-year period ending in 2006, was undertaken after members of Congress expressed concern about incidents at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

The report gives credit to the academies for hiring sexual assault response coordinators and training students and personnel to prevent and respond to incidents. But it points to inconsistencies in the reporting of incidents and says the Department of Defense has "been only minimally addressing congressional interest in academy programs" by not analyzing data and programs in reports sent to Congress.

"It has been difficult for DOD and Congress to judge how well the academies are addressing these important issues," the report states.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who sits on the congressional committee that requested the study in 2006, said the report indicates that more needs to be done to address sexual misconduct.

"While the Defense Department has made some strides, they still have not developed a systematic approach to confronting the problem of sexual harassment and assault," said Van Hollen, who added that congressional hearings would be held on the report.

The study reveals that 145 sexual assaults were reported at the three academies during the three-year period examined in the study.

The report points out that a survey given to students at the academies in spring 2006 suggests that 200 women and 100 men might have experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in the previous year.

The report, while noting that disparities between incidents reported in anonymous surveys and to authorities are "largely" expected, said the disparity shows that the academies lack "full visibility" of the problem.

The largest number of reported assaults, 55, was at the Naval Academy, though figures for assaults at the other academies were incomplete, the study shows.

A Naval Academy spokesman said yesterday afternoon that officials were unavailable to comment.

A Department of Defense report released in December showed a major decline in the number of sexual-assault accusations at the Naval Academy for the 2006-2007 academic year. Midshipmen reported five incidents of sexual assault, a legal term that includes rape, forcible sodomy, indecent assault and unwanted sexual contact. That compares with 12 the previous year and 17 the year before that.

But several high-profile incidents at the academy in recent years have kept the issue at the forefront, including sex-assault charges against a football player and the conviction of a Navy physician accused of secretly recording midshipmen who stayed in his home.

The report released yesterday says the Defense Department "has not clearly articulated" a reporting standard, such as requiring uniform terminology or the same methodology of reporting.

Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, a victim advocacy group, said accurate reporting is critical. The academies won't know, for example, how many rape kits or clinical therapists are needed without knowing how many incidents are actually taking place on campus.

"All of that kind of practical, on-the-ground information could be garnered and projected by having accurate data," Sanchez said. "That informs policymakers."

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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