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Sex-assault database urged for academies

The Baltimore Sun

Federal lawmakers in Maryland are pushing for a national database to catalog sexual assaults at the U.S. Naval Academy and other military colleges, months after a government agency found that incidents were inconsistently reported.

The effort comes after years of reports finding a hostile climate for women at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and other attempts, which have met mixed success, at combating sexual assaults there.

Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings would require the Defense Department to create the database along with standards for reporting sexual assaults. Currently, the academies submit annual reports using their own terms and categories that can change from year to year.

Policymakers said that without accurate reporting, they cannot spot trends and determine how to best allocate resources.

"There was a severe lack of oversight when it comes to incidents of sexual assault and harassment within the academies," said Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's kind of hard to act on a problem when you don't know you have it or the extent of it."

He introduced the requirements for a database and reporting standards as amendments to the defense authorization bill that passed the House last month. The Senate has yet to pass a version of the bill.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Pentagon has for years planned a national database to track assaults across the department and that those plans are being accelerated under recent pressure from Cummings, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and other lawmakers. Officials are still planning the database, which the spokeswoman said would catalog assaults - including names of victims and offenders, and descriptions of incidents - throughout the military, including incidents overseas.

"Over the past year, there have been increased requests for sexual assault data by DOD leadership and lawmakers," the spokeswoman, Cynthia O. Smith, wrote in an e-mail. "We have full support of DOD leadership and are moving forward to begin this project."

Cummings, who sits on the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, an advisory board, said the efforts to establish a database are aimed to address a Government Accountability Office Report released this year that found incidents at the military academies were being inconsistently cataloged or were going unreported.

The report, which had been requested by a congressional committee and was made public in February, credited the Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., with taking significant steps to address assaults.

But it pointed to inconsistencies - including, for example, how to document rapes reported anonymously - and said the Defense Department has "been only minimally addressing Congressional interest in academy programs."

The study revealed that 145 sexual assaults were reported at the Naval, Air Force and Military academies during a recent three-year period.

Cummings said the report troubled him because not knowing the extent of the problem undermines recent efforts - including required training - at reducing harassment and assaults.

"We have spent a considerable amount of time trying to make sure that women, who are usually the victims of sexual harassment, feel welcome and feel safe at the academy," Cummings said.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in March, Mikulski, a Democrat who also sits on the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors, pointed to the findings of the GAO report and wrote that she was "frustrated" the department had "not clearly defined a common reporting standard."

A spokeswoman for Mikulski said the senator planned to work with other senators to ensure a requirement for the database is included in the Senate version of the defense authorization bill. If such a requirement is passed into law, the Defense Department would have to meet a deadline for creating the database, the spokeswoman said.

The database envisioned by Cummings would store statistics, descriptions of assaults and offenders' names.

Policymakers would be able to use the database to spot trends, such as a rise in assaults being committed outdoors or by acquaintances known by the victim, Cummings said.

Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, a victims advocacy group, said the ability of advocates to present lawmakers with accurate data is key to securing funding for initiatives to combat assaults.

"The more information we can collect, the better off we can be - we can better inform Congress about the development of policy," Sanchez said. "It also speaks to how much funding you need, how many rape kits do you need, how many victim advocates do you need."

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