Pentagon: COVID-19 derailed annual survey of sexual assaults at academies

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The Pentagon on Thursday said the coronavirus pandemic prevented officials from gathering data for an annual report on unwanted sexual contact at the military academies.

Defense officials had planned to administer in-person surveys at the schools in early 2020, but the spread of the COVID-19 forced superintendents to send cadets and midshipmen home in mid-March, according to the Pentagon’s Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies.

The Pentagon’s next in-person survey at the three elite academies isn’t expected again until next year.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment have no place at the Academies,” states the report’s executive summary. “We must continue to stay vigilant in our efforts to prevent and eradicate these behaviors to ensure our future military leaders’ safety.”

The Defense Department last reported, in 2019, that there was a major increase in the number of reported unwanted sexual contact across the schools, where about 12,000 students are enrolled.

The survey found that 747 students reported unwanted sexual contact in the 2017-18 academic year, up from 507 in 2015-16, a 47 percent jump. The report’s definition of unwanted sexual contact included anything from unwanted touching and groping to rape.

The 2019 report also found that 15.8 percent of female students and 2.4 percent of male students reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, with more than 50 percent of women reporting they were sexually harassed in the 2017-18 school year.

Those findings came after the Pentagon had implemented numerous measures in an attempt to stamp out sexual assault and harassment, including the announcement of a zero tolerance policy.

The little data that was obtained for the most recent survey found that there were 88 reports of sexual assault by academy women and men during the 2019-20 school year, compared with 122 reports in 2018-19.

Reports of sexual assault are considered far below the actual number that occur as most victims do not file a formal complaint.

Following the report’s release on Thursday, acting Army Secretary John Whitley and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville released a joint statement decrying the “corrosive behaviors” of some students, adding that they expect cadets “to demonstrate the character required to serve honorably as caring leaders.”

“The Army is fully committed to preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault. These corrosive behaviors harm our people, destroy readiness and undermine the trust of the American people and the parents who send us their sons and daughters,” the two officials said.

Whitley and McConville said West Point has “increased staffing for prevention programs and taken steps to better protect the confidentiality of cadets who are victims of sexual violence,” and implemented several programs “to ensure a safe environment, predicated on dignity and respect, where our rising leaders can reach their full potential.”

Defense Secretary Llyod Austin has pledged to tackle sexual assault within the military and has ordered a review of the Pentagon’s prevention programs.

“I take this issue of sexual assault very, very seriously,” Austin told reporters on Friday. “We’ve been working at this for a long time in earnest but we haven’t gotten it right. We’re going to do everything in our power to get it right.”

He said the collection of data is a first step but the Pentagon will soon move to look “in detail at ourselves and what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and what measures we need to take going forward. … Any other approach is, in my view, irresponsible.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Defense Department military academies Pandemic Pentagon Sexual assault Sexual misconduct

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