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Group investigates Air Force sexual assault policies

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Feb. 21, 2003) -- Several members of a working group created by the secretary of the Air Force to review the service's sexual assault policies began gathering information here Feb. 19.

Dr. James G. Roche recently directed the Air Force's general counsel to lead the group looking at how the service deals with sexual assault at the officer training programs, with particular emphasis on the Air Force Academy. The group will report their findings and recommendations to the secretary and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper.

"The intent of the working group is to provide the secretary of the Air Force the information he needs to put in place whatever new policies and programs are necessary that will support both human dignity and basic justice," said Air Force spokesperson Valerie L. Burkes at the Pentagon.

While the academy has had a program in place to address such issues since 1993, recent cadet complaints suggested a review is now appropriate, Burkes said.

According to the school's commandant of cadets, when dealing with sexual assault, the academy's programs begin with prevention.

"Prevention is truly the heart of our program," Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III said. "Although victim support is an essential part and has received a lot of attention as of late, we focus a lot of our attention on prevention, and that starts on day one at the academy."

Students are given a booklet on their first day titled "Wing Tips," essentially their first schoolbook while at the institution. Last summer, information was added to the book so that the first page discusses sexual harassment and discrimination, Gilbert said. On the second page is a cadets' "bill of rights" which delves further into inappropriate requests and unwanted sexual advances.

First-year human relations and sexual assault education programs at the academy range from general information about sexual assault and awareness, to a class titled "Street Smarts," where cadets learn how not to be a victim.

If those precautions fail to prevent a sexual assault from taking place, the academy presents a wide variety of avenues for reporting the alleged crime, the general said.

"There are a variety of means where a cadet can report harassment, sexual assault or rape," Gilbert said. "It depends on the individual cadet and their preferences as to which avenue they want to take.

"If they desire to go talk to a chaplain, we have chaplains available. If they desire to talk to a medical professional, they can go to the medical group and we have medical professionals available. If they desire to talk to a professional counselor, we have those available," he said.

Beyond the emotional and physical support programs, Gilbert said the academy is committed to providing justice for cadets who fall victim to sexual crimes.

"A victim can go through their chain of command, or to the security forces, or the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to report those problems," Gilbert said. "In those cases where women want to prosecute, I will always investigate. When there is evidence, I will always take the harshest possible action I can as a commander because this is an important issue to me."

Burkes echoed the general's words, saying the Air Force has zero tolerance for sexual assault.

"We encourage victims to report incidents so they can get the support and care they need and, consistent with justice, offenders can be dealt with appropriately," she said.