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When the Foe Is Sexual Misconduct

Service Academies Fight Victims' Reluctance to Report

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page AA03

A report on sexual assault and harassment at the U.S. Naval Academy and the other service academies illustrates the challenge of getting victims to report abuse at schools defined by one-for-all altruism and top-down authority.

Released last month by the Department of Defense, the April 2004 Service Academy Sexual Assault and Leadership Survey of cadets and midshipmen revealed that one female student in seven reported having been sexually assaulted since enrollment. That fact alone is troubling, military officials said, but they were also dismayed to learn that of the total 302 sexual assaults reported on the confidential surveys, two-thirds had never been reported before.

Asked why they hadn't notified authorities of an assault, more than half the respondents explained that they preferred to handle it themselves. A few said they were ashamed or feared ostracism.

Consequently, leaders of the Naval Academy are, in effect, fighting on two fronts: spreading the word on the military's no-tolerance policy toward sexual misconduct, and encouraging victims to step forward, despite their misgivings.

"If we continue to foster that we are very sensitive to the victims, that we are very sensitive to their privacy and confidentiality . . . those victims can go back and tell their friends, 'I was well-treated by this process,' " said Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt, superintendent of the Naval Academy, speaking at a news briefing last month.

The 2004 survey of nearly every woman and a representative sample of men at the Army, Navy and Air Force academies represents one of the more thorough published reports on rape attempted by a higher-education entity. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a news conference that he had surveyed the research community and sensed that the military academies "are about where college campuses are, tragically," in frequency of sexual assault.

Bonnie Fisher, a University of Cincinnati political science professor, surveyed more than 3,700 students at 12 colleges in 1993 and found 31 rapes and sexual assaults per 1,000 students for that year. Fisher's findings are roughly consistent with the service academy statistics on sexual assault, which work out to 158 incidents per 1,000 students over a five-year span.

To deal with sexual misconduct, Rempt and his staff at the Naval Academy in Annapolis first must know when it happens. And that has proven a problem. Of the 83 female midshipmen who reported that they had been sexually assaulted in the 2004 survey, 59 never officially reported it. The large majority said they preferred to handle it themselves.

A separate survey of midshipmen, conducted in October by the academy, found that the vast majority of students who experienced sexual harassment also failed to report it.

The Naval Academy Values Survey has collected data on attitudes and morale for several years. In a news briefing last month to discuss the findings of the broader Defense Department survey, academy officials noted steady improvement in some areas of their own survey that could indicate improvement in campus climate.

Results from the Naval Academy fall survey show a steady decline in the percentage of students who reported experiencing sexual harassment. In 1997, 16 percent of midshipmen surveyed said they had been harassed in the previous year. In 2004, only 7 percent reported harassment.

The academy survey also showed that students are becoming more comfortable with the idea of reporting sexual harassment to authorities. As recently as 2003, two-thirds of women at the academy perceived that students who report harassment are resented. In 2004, the share had dropped to 18 percent.

In the same survey, 97 percent of women reported they felt safe sleeping in Bancroft Hall, the Naval Academy living quarters, compared with 87 percent in 2000.

Nonetheless, the majority of female midshipmen surveyed by the Defense Department reported they had experienced some form of harassment on campus.

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