The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College sexual assault prevention has unlikely model: U.S. service academies

United States Naval Academy Midshipman First Class Zack Kerscher, Peer Educator, conducts a Sexual Assault Response and Prevention training for fellow Midshipmen on Feb. 4, 2015 in Annapolis, Md. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Colleges scrambling to develop lessons in sexual-assault prevention could glean ideas from what might be considered an unlikely source: the nation’s military service academies.

Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy are required to undergo four years of prevention training, far more than the norm on civilian campuses.

These undergraduates are hardly typical. The future military officers must follow orders at schools that prize discipline. But the curriculum they absorb — on “bystander intervention,” mutual consent for sexual contact and tricky scenarios involving alcohol, among other topics — is familiar to those who track the growing national campaign against campus sexual violence.

On Wednesday, the Defense Department published a report on sexual harassment and violence at the academies, and the results underscored the need for prevention training. It found, through anonymous surveys, that an estimated 8 percent of female students and 1 percent of male students at the academies experienced unwanted sexual contact in the 2013-2014 school year. That suggested a decline in the prevalence of sexual assault, the department said, because the rates two years earlier were 12 percent for women and 2 percent for men.

Fifty-three cadets and midshipmen formally reported a sexual assault in 2013-2014 related to incidents that occurred during their military service, the department said, a total unchanged from the previous year. In all, there are about 13,000 students at the three academies.

The academies, which did not admit women until the 1970s, have long had a reputation as a difficult environment for female students. The department’s report said that 48 percent of women in the academies experienced some form of perceived sexual harassment in 2013-2014, down from 51 percent two years earlier. The share of women who perceived sexual harassment, the report said, dropped significantly at Annapolis but rose at West Point and Colorado Springs.

Vice Adm. Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr., who became the Naval Academy’s superintendent in July, said sexual assault prevention is a top priority. “The entire staff, on this topic, they know that they have my ear,” he said. “I don’t tell anybody that we’ve got this figured out. Not by a long shot. This has got to be continually worked at.”

The academy in Annapolis was rocked in 2013 when a female midshipman alleged that she had been raped the year before by three academy football players at an off-campus party. Charges against two of the men were dropped, and the third was acquitted last year in a court-martial. The case drew wide notice at a time when the entire military was coming under congressional scrutiny for lapses in its handling of sexual assault.

‘A number of years ahead’

Carter contends that the Naval Academy’s lengthy experience with prevention training — especially a peer education program that began in fall 2007 — puts it in the vanguard among residential colleges. “We’re a number of years ahead of where some of them are,” he said.

Colleges nationwide are ramping up efforts to teach students how to determine what means yes in a sexual encounter and what doesn’t, and how to intervene when they spot a situation at a party that could be a prelude to sexual assault. Often these programs are geared toward freshmen, who are deemed most vulnerable. But many experts say that’s not enough — that such lessons need to be repeated and broadened over a longer period of time.

“The best-case scenario is that all of these types of programs are implemented to all students, at all levels, throughout their college education,” said Denice Labertew, of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The federal government is a driving force in the prevention movement. President Obama has promoted the issue repeatedly. The Education Department is investigating 96 colleges and universities over their handling of sexual-violence complaints. And federal regulations issued last year will require colleges to provide students with ongoing prevention and awareness programs related to dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

“The smart schools will respond,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women. “There’s a great need for schools to be upping their game.”

Last month, Dartmouth College said it will develop a “comprehensive and mandatory” four-year education program on sexual-violence prevention. The Ivy League college said it will look at programs at the military academies, among other schools, as it designs its initiative. “Because the service academies are federal and make reports on their programs public, we can see the structure and effectiveness of a mandatory four-year curriculum,” Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence wrote in an e-mail.

In Annapolis, the effort has a simple title — Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education — and because this is the military, it goes by an acronym: SHAPE. Midshipmen take 14 hours of SHAPE and about 16 hours of related training spread over four years.

SHAPE delves into the characteristics of sexual assailants, social conformity, questions about consent and alcohol, the impact on survivors and other topics. What distinguishes the program is that students lead the lessons.

Talking through the issues

One evening this month, sophomores — called “youngsters” at the academy — gathered at Sampson Hall to discuss gender socialization and stereotypes. To encourage candor, men and women were separated into different classrooms.

The Washington Post observed a session with about three dozen youngsters on the condition that they not be identified. Talk flowed freely and frankly as the students weighed the corrosive effects of various slurs and sexually offensive words.

Asked for terms that might signify a “stereotypical man,” the youngsters cited “alpha,” “insensitive,” “arrogant” and “thinks with his penis.” Asked to describe a “man of character,” they cited “respectful,” “courageous,” “selfless” and “resilient.”

The point of the lesson was to push their thinking away from the stereotype and toward the ideal.

Spirited debate broke out after the sophomores watched a video that said the “three most destructive words” a boy hears when growing up are “be a man.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” one midshipman objected. “If you have a problem, you need to deal with it and fix it. You don’t sit around and cry about it.”

Another agreed: “I think of it as saying, like, stand up for yourself, be able to support your own decisions, and not always have to look to others to make a decision for yourself.”

But a third pointed out: “When someone says, ‘Be a man,’ the alternative to not being a man is kind of being a female, being a woman.” He said that implies women — including their own female classmates at the academy — are not as strong as men. “That’s a lot of the root causes of all these things,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

“That was awesome. That was fantastic. Great point,” said Joshua Malone, 21, a fourth-year midshipman from New York. He was one of two peer educators leading the session.

The other was Zack Kerscher, 22, a fourth-year midshipman from Ohio. Kerscher was drawn into a dialogue with a sophomore who wondered aloud why it would be offensive to say to someone “don’t be gay” when all he meant was “stop being dumb.”

Kerscher said the future officers must be vigilant in avoiding any language that demeans entire groups of people. “If we’re here to better people’s lives,” Kerscher said, “what’s the point of using language that is actually putting people down? . . . It goes back to being that man of character. Isn’t that who we’re trying to be?”