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A sailboat make its way down the Severn River past the Naval Academy.
A sailboat make its way down the Severn River past the Naval Academy. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Allegations of several sexual assaults committed by one midshipman at the Naval Academy are troubling both in the specifics of the case and in the concerns they raise about how the military academy handled reporting of the incidents and whether it is taking accusations of sexual assault seriously enough.

From February 2018 to May of this year, on four different occasions, Third Class Midshipmen Nixon Keago is accused of breaking into dormitory rooms, and one time the berthing area of a ship, where young women were sleeping. Naval Academy Charging documents claim he sexually forced himself on them or attempted to. The crimes he is accused of committing against the three fellow midshipmen, one of whom was victimized twice according to the documents, are bold, brazen and intrusive.

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If the allegations are true, it is alarming that a cadet could commit four predatory criminal acts following a similar pattern, without detection over a 15-month period. Every female cadet at the academy should be on high alert — as should their parents, who have a right to expect that their young-adult children will be protected by an institution of higher education, particularly one that requires students (a.k.a. ”midshipmen”) to live in a dormitory and a five-year commitment of active duty service from them upon graduation.

It also calls into question the academy’s commitment to preventing sexual misconduct. The Defense Department estimates about 254 midshipmen have experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact, though just 32 reports of sexual assault were filed during the 2017-2018 school year — a 10-year high.

Vice Adm. Sean Buck, who took over as superintendent of the Naval Academy in July after the last incident is alleged to have occurred, has said that the “prevention and elimination of sexual assault and sexual harassment remains at the forefront” of his mind and is a top priority, according to reporting by The Capital Gazette. We hope he follows through in actions, as well as words.

Sexual misconduct at the nation’s three military academies has reached “crisis” level proportions Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee, said earlier this year during a hearing that included testimony from the Naval Academy.

“I’m putting the academies on notice,” she said. “This isn’t a blip, a ‘Me-Too’ bump or some accident. It’s time for us to recognize that this is a crisis, and I intend to watch it like a hawk.”

The Naval Academy has made some efforts to address the issue, providing sexual assault prevention education to all midshipmen, holding a conference on sexual harassment and assault prevention in April and implementing an anonymous reporting system. Yet two of the women Mr. Keago is alleged to have victimized apparently didn’t report the incidents, despite the cover of anonymity. And really, what good is reporting if the cadets who fall victim to such assaults are not supported with strong, quick investigations?

Officials with the Naval Academy said they first became aware of an alleged assault by Mr. Keago in October 2018. The Naval Criminal Investigation Service started an immediate inquiry and learned about two others, in February and September of that year. But it took nearly a year to investigate and bring charges against Mr. Keago, during which time he was allowed to attend classes and, according to the charging documents, commit another assault.

Mr. Keago is scheduled for a court-martial trial in January. He is charged with sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, burglary and obstruction of justice for allegedly telling midshipmen to lie to military authorities after the incidents in September and May, according to the documents. He was placed on a leave of absence with no pay from the academy, and was not taken into custody, a spokesman for the Naval Academy said.

We take Superintendent Buck at his word that this issue is of grave concern to him; he must ensure this is the last case of its kind at the academy. A cultural change is required to encourage urgent, thorough and sincere responses to predatory behavior, and that can only come from the top.

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