The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reported sexual assault cases climb at military academies despite prevention efforts

Cadets and midshipmen at all three principal service academies reported more incidents of sexual assault than in previous years

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Reports of sexual assault are on the rise at all three principal U.S. service academies, according to data the Defense Department released Thursday that show there were more complaints made during the 2020-2021 academic year than in any other since officials began tracking such statistics.

Cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., the U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo., reported 131 incidents of sexual assault in the 2020-2021 academic year. That’s up from 88 the year prior, a figure officials say was depressed due to the early closure of the academies in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, the report shows that the reports of sexual assault in 2020-2021 also increased in comparison to pre-pandemic years, in which the documented cases and estimated prevalence of such incidents was already on the rise.

The numbers come at a time when the Defense Department is under intense scrutiny regarding how it handles cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment and related crimes. Last year, an independent commission tasked to review the Pentagon’s policies recommended changes to remove some decision-making about the prosecution of such cases from the chain of command, to improve victims’ ability to see perpetrators brought to justice. Congress followed suit, passing legislation to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) regarding sexual assault and related crimes.

The academies have implemented various initiatives to mitigate and prevent sexual assault from occurring, and to encourage cadets and midshipmen to report when they have been the victim of offenses. Pentagon officials thus pointed to the increase in reported assaults as potential good news.

“The goal of the department is, overall, to decrease how often sexual assault occurs, as measured by the survey, through prevention efforts — and then to increase the number of reports received from cadets and midshipmen,” said Nate Galbreath, the acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, noting that the reported numbers were “not a crime rate” but potential evidence that students were more comfortable coming forward.

Yet numbers from recent years suggest that may not be the case. Between the 2013-2014 academic year and the most recent cycle, reports of sexual assault generally rose. But over the same period, the estimated percentage of sexual assaults those reports represented either held steady, or fell, according to the department’s data — belying the notion that a greater portion of victims were coming forward, instead of more incidents taking place.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Pentagon found that only about 12 percent of sexual assault incidents at the military academies were reported. By comparison, Galbreath said, reports of sexual assault in the active-duty military make up about 30 percent of incidents taking place. Such data is gleaned through comparing actual reports to data from surveys conducted every other year, a pattern that was interrupted by the covid-19 pandemic temporarily shuttering the academies.

Galbreath admitted that the preventing sexual assault in military academies, where the majority of accused perpetrators are fellow cadets and midshipmen, remained a challenge — and that some of the mitigation measures officials had pursued a decade ago had been determined not to be effective enough. He noted that the Pentagon had contracted with outside researchers at the University of Chicago to take a look at the prevention education efforts at the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy — but added that it could be “a couple of years” before they have the results of that study.

There is “still much more work to be done,” he said.