A government task force began a review this week of how the U.S. Naval Academy handles reports of sexual assault and harassment by spending two days at the elite Annapolis school interviewing students and faculty.
The committee, which is also looking at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, was created by Congress after another committee last year found that dozens of sexual assault reports at the Air Force Academy in recent years went unheeded by the school's administration.
Although Navy Vice Adm. Gerald L. Hoewing told reporters yesterday that the committee does not expect to find anything so egregious, "there is still some element of sexual harassment and sexual violence at the military academies. And our job is to drive that number down to zero, because our nation deserves it. We're going to do everything we can to do that."
The Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies is part of a broader effort to tackle the problem of sexual harassment in the military. Recently, the Department of Defense has launched a study of sexual assaults among active-duty service members, the Guard and the Reserve. It is also considering harsher punishment for sex crimes under military law.
"Sexual harassment and sexual violence are an anathema to honorable service to our nation," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a statement. "We must ensure that the environment within the department . . . is not conducive to sexual misconduct."
Hoewing's committee, which will issue a report to Congress within a year, is not investigating any one incident, he said. It is studying the overall culture of the academies, gauging attitudes toward sexual harassment and finding ways the institutions can best prevent such problems.
Made up of both military personnel and civilians, the committee plans to meet with counselors and school administrators to see what kind of training students receive and what procedures are in place to handle incidents. The task force will also study how other universities handle the problem.
Hoewing said the committee plans to review past incidents, such as the case last year at the Naval Academy in which a midshipman was charged with raping a 19-year-old female schoolmate. The rape charge was dropped, but the student who was charged was expelled for having "unduly familiar relationships" with two midshipmen of lower rank.
Hoewing said task force members have reviewed "a high-level summary" of reported incidents during the last few years at the academies, but he would not discuss them.
Task force members have already met with more than a hundred midshipmen and cadets. Those meetings, though cursory, left Hoewing feeling "optimistic" about how such problems are handled. Both academies "have a very extensive training program on identification of what is sexual harassment and what is sexual assault," he said.
Committee member Delilah Rumburg, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said she was heartened by the willingness of the academies to participate in the program. And she said the military's willingness to open its doors to outside experts is an encouraging sign that it is taking the issue seriously.
"We are going to take a hard look at everything," she said.