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Academy making strides in sexual assault prevention

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 30, 2006) -- In 2003, the Air Force Academy faced negative attention from the press and drew the ire of parents and lawmakers alike because victims of sexual assault at the school who reported their cases were not given appropriate attention.

The academy's commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Susan Y. Desjardins, told lawmakers that since that time, leaders at the Colorado Springs, Colo., institution have made great progress toward better addressing sexual assault and violence at their school. She testified June 27 before the House Committee on Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations.

"The Air Force Academy has come a long way in addressing sexual assault and violence since the events of 2003 and before," she said. "We have changed and institutionalized processes that make victim care our first priority."

General Desjardins said leaders at the Air Force Academy have focused their efforts in three areas: prevention, cultural change and victim care.

"In order to prevent sexual assault, we first had to understand sexual assault as a continuum of inappropriate behaviors that are contrary to the concepts of honor and service that we in the Air Force have embraced through our core values," she said. Those behaviors range from sexual harassment to physical sexual violence.

General Desjardins said the school used experts like Dr. David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts in Boston to help students and faculty at the school better understand the nature of sexual assault crimes, the conditions under which they occur and methods the community can use to prevent sexual assaults.

That education, she said, has helped create a cultural change at the school. Nearly 150 hours of coursework, spread out through a cadet's four years at the school, are dedicated to character and leadership development, she said. More than 55 of those hours are devoted to lessons featuring respect as the baseline for topics such as substance abuse, accountability and human relations, including sexual assault and harassment training.

"Our education and training programs focus on helping cadets internalize and respect their identity, and that of all their fellow cadets, as members of our United States Air Force," she said.

Some of the greatest strides at the school have been made in victim care, General Desjardins said.

In 2003, the academy established the Academy Response Team. It is made up of a victim's advocate, a sexual assault response coordinator and members of the Office of Special Investigations and judge advocate general. The ART is under the supervision of the training wing vice commander.

"The program we developed here subsequently was adapted Air Force-wide, then by DOD for all military installations," said Johnny Whitaker, Air Force Academy director of communications. "Our ART was the basis for the sexual assault response coordinator programs in place today."

The school, the Air Force and the entire Department of Defense also now follow guidelines set forth by DOD officials that allow for confidential reporting. Confidential reporting allows sexual assault victims to report a crime anonymously, while at the same time getting the care and treatment they need.

"We strongly supported a confidential reporting option to allow victims to come forward and receive care without automatically triggering a law enforcement investigation -- while maintaining that option for them," General Desjardins said during her testimony.

Through agreements with local agencies, the school provides a range of services to ensure confidentiality and preservation of evidence for victims, so they will be encouraged to report crimes, and so that perpetrators can eventually be held accountable for their actions

During the 2005-2006 school year, there have been a handful of restricted reports filed with the USAFA SARC, General Desjardins said.

"This is good news as an indicator of trust and confidence in our reporting system and the treatment of victims as a first priority," she said.

While the academy has made great strides in sexual assault education and prevention, and has done a great deal to improve victim care, General Desjardins said the school has a long way to go.

"And I can't overstate how important it is to make this change and continue to shine this light," she said. "This is not one of those problems that will go away. We always have to keep our focus on it and I am optimistic that we are making good changes, but we have a long way to go. We have a very long way to go."