Pentagon Chief Orders Reforms at Service Academies After Damning Sexual Assault Report

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Acceptance Day Parade at West Point.
Corps of Cadets welcome the Class of 2025 to the ranks during the Acceptance Day Parade at West Point, Aug. 14, 2021. (U.S. Army Photo by Ellington Ward)

Last week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered superintendents of military service academies to address increasing reports of sexual assault after the Pentagon's biennial survey on harassment and assault showed that nearly 9% of future officers reported unwanted sexual contact between 2021 and 2022.

To better evaluate current service academy policies, Austin also ordered "on-site installation evaluations" to be completed before the end of next month.

The order -- and report -- come on the heels of another Defense Department report that showed 8.4% of female service members reported experiencing sexual assault in 2021, the highest levels in more than a decade. The recent report said that 21.4% of service academy women and 4.4% of men experienced unwanted sexual contact.

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"During Academy Program Year 2021-2022, the Military Service Academies (MSA) observed an alarming increase in the estimated prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other concerning behaviors," Austin said in his memo Friday, addressing military branch secretaries and academy leaders. "These corrosive behaviors require your immediate attention."

Austin's order constituted eight actions, one of which commanded service academy leaders to better address and prevent assault.

The recent report on service academies, however, found "substantial declines" in trust with academy leadership.

"Overall, the majority of academy women and men were confident academy senior leaders were making honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual assault and sexual harassment," the report said. "However, there were significant declines in perceptions of trust in Military Service Academy senior leaders for both women (59 percent compared to 72 percent in Academic Program Year 2017-2018) and men (76 percent compared to 83 percent)."

The study did not appear to list the number of respondents.

The Pentagon order told the heads of the military departments to issue policies to separate perpetrators and victims. According to the report, in the past, those interventions were limited to deconflicting class schedules between alleged perpetrators and victims.

"The Secretaries of the Military Departments will issue policy that allows, to the extent practicable, cadet and midshipman survivors and alleged perpetrators of sexual assault to complete their coursework without taking classes together or being in close, physical proximity during mandatory activities," Austin's memo said.

Austin's order also mandated that superintendents encourage participation in further surveys; communicate upcoming military justice reforms; provide survivor recovery services; and implement Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team policies, some of which have been in place since at least 2021.

"While change of this magnitude will take time, we owe it to our cadets and midshipmen -- the Department's future leaders -- to redouble our efforts and ensure that this work is effective and enduring," Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, said in a DoD press release Friday coinciding with the publication of Austin's memo. She also encouraged those experiencing sexual assault or harassment to make reports "so we can connect them with recovery care" and hold offenders accountable.

The Pentagon survey said that cadets and midshipmen at the Army, Air Force and naval academies reported an 18% jump in assaults since 2018, though the Pentagon did not conduct the survey in 2020. Both men and women reported experiencing greater instances of sexual assault and harassment.

Of those surveyed, 155 said they told a Department of Defense official of the harassment or assault.

Austin finished the memo with a call to "reverse the harmful trends" at service academies.

"Now is the time to employ the resources with which we have been entrusted and advance our common way forward," he wrote.

"Our future leaders are counting on you."

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: Sexual Assault Reports Increase at US Military Academies

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