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Sexual assault reports at Naval Academy increase during academic year disrupted by the COVID pandemic

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Reports of sexual assault at the Naval Academy slightly increased in the 2019 to 2020 school year.

The Naval Academy received 34 reports of sexual assault, an increase of one, according to the Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, but the rise comes with a caveat. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, midshipmen were sent home after spring break.

Of the 34, 24 were unrestricted, meaning law enforcement and the command are notified, and 10 were restricted.

Sexual assault reports decreased, overall, among the country’s three military academies, but the decrease is attributed to 27 fewer sexual assault reports at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Both the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy increased reports of sexual assault by one.

It is unclear what caused the decrease at West Point or the increases at the Naval and Air Force academies as the Department of Defense was not able to conduct a scientific prevalence survey this year due to the pandemic.

It is also unclear if the numbers would have been different if midshipmen had not been sent home.

A fluctuation of one is not unusual, said Naval Academy spokesperson Cmdr. Alana Garas. A direct cause is hard to establish comparing two years, even with the effects of the pandemic.

“Sexual assault by definition is a crime that requires contact a factor impacted by the pandemic lockdowns,” Garas said in an email. “Sexual harassment by contrast does not require physical proximity. Harassment can be accomplished by virtual and technological means as well as in person.”

Sexual harassment complaints decreased by one at the academy and by five among the three institutions. Like with sexual assault reports, the Department of Defense is unsure what attributed to the decrease.

While sexual assault reports can include ones made by active duty service members, prep school students or civilians, most of the sexual assaults at the Naval Academy are midshipman on midshipman, Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck testified at a Tuesday congressional hearing.

“And that’s very distressing that it’s blue on blue,” he said.

Despite the work done in the 2019-2020 academic year, there is still work to be done on preventing sexual assault, Buck said in a statement. He applauded the work of the Sexual Assault and Prevention team for implementing changes highlighted in the previous year’s annual report.

“Eliminating sexual assault and harassment remains a guiding priority of mine during my tenure as Superintendent, and I intend to continue to communicate this as an enduring leadership challenge for our next generation of naval leaders here in Annapolis,” he said in the statement.

Increased reports may also be a sign that midshipmen feel they can report. Rates at the Naval Academy have increased since 2008, which indicates more midshipmen are connected with resources and services.

“Considering that many sexual assaults are not immediately reported, if ever, what may have been facilitated by the midshipmen at home was the opportunity to decide to report previously unreported incidents,” Garas said in the email.

“As agreed upon by professionals in the field of sexual assault prevention and response, sexual assault remains one of the most under reported crimes world wide. This widely held understanding of trauma and victimology directly opposes any negative attributions assigned an increase in reports, large or small.”

The Naval Academy, as well as the other service academies, are focusing on prevention, Buck said.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, the Naval Academy established the Midshipman Affairs Team, which included a prevention working group to address issues such as sexual assault and sexual harassment, according to the DOD report.

The Midshipman Affairs Team spent the academic year developing a comprehensive prevention education strategy, which was implemented in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Midshipmen in the 21st company will also receive a survey on the climate at the academy as part of a pilot program through the prevention working group. The pilot program is through a partnership with RAND, which also helped the academy implement an anonymous reporting tool, Garas said in her email.

The Department of Defense started the CATCH a Serial Offender Program in the 2019-2020 academic year, which allowed those making restricted reports to give information about an alleged offender to military criminal investigators and be entered into a database. If information about the offender is similar to information in another CATCH case, they considered converting their restricted report to unrestricted.

At the academy, eight midshipmen filed CATCH entries, with two entries producing a match, according to the report. The Naval Academy was the first Navy command to have a CATCH match.

Midshipmen were introduced to the program through briefs, informal trainings, small groups and emails. They also received bi-annual refreshers during reformations, Garas said.

“The Catch program provides a path of action for victims of sexual assault to add to what we would hope to be an ever growing body of options,” she said in the email. “For some a sense of agency which was lost at the time of the assault can be reclaimed in the sharing of information. First line responders consider that to be a success.”

The Naval academy was also the first academy to transfer a sexual assault survivor to another service academy. No additional details were shared in the report. The Air Force Academy also completed a transfer in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Looking forward, the academy is aiming to provide midshipmen with a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response mobile app, which is being created by midshipmen in computer science and information technology majors, according to the report. The application should be ready by the end of the current academic year.

“We feel more responsible than ever not only to ensure that every member of the Brigade of Midshipmen can flourish in an environment of dignity and respect, but also to prepare them to better lead Sailors and Marines in the fleet that come directly from that society we are entrusted to protect,” Garas said in her email.

The DOD report noted the progress made by each of the academies in the 2019-2020 academic year, especially considering the challenges of the pandemic. Despite the progress, midshipmen and cadets are still at risk for sexual assault and harassment.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment have no place at the Academies,” the report states. “We must continue to stay vigilant in our efforts to prevent and eradicate these behaviors to ensure our future military leaders’ safety.”


(c) 2021 The Capital

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