Drop in Sexual Assault Reports at Service Academies May Be Coronavirus-Related

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 01, 2021) -- Reports of sexual assault by cadets and midshipmen at the three military service academies dropped from 122 in the 2018 school year to 88 in the 2019 school year. But the biggest changes happened in the fourth quarter, defense officials said, and those changes may be due to COVID-19.

The numbers were reported in the just-released Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies for the academic program year 2019 -- 2020.

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For both the 2018 and 2019 school years, reports of sexual assaults matched up pretty closely for the first three quarters. It wasn't until the fourth quarter where the number of reports for the 2019 school year fell below the numbers reported for the previous year, Nathan W. Galbreath, deputy director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said during a telephone briefing on Thursday.

"You will see that this year's academic program year matches almost, very well, quarter-for-quarter in the number of reports that they received, up until quarter four, when the pandemic response measures hit," he said. "As a result, we saw a decrease in quarter four of the number of sexual assault reports made at the academies, and we do attribute that to the fact that cadets and midshipmen were sent home."

While military service academy students were sent home as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, Galbreath said, the ability to report sexual assaults and response and support measures remained.

"All sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates remained available for cadets and midshipmen to make a report throughout the pandemic response," he said. "In addition to that, we saw excellent evidence that all of them went above and beyond in supporting ... the victims that were out there."

Also of note is that the DOD's SAPRO team expected to conduct a prevalence survey this year, which is an anonymous survey meant to ascertain the number of sexual assaults that occur in the group surveyed.

"That measure gives us an idea of the full scope of the problem, whether it's in the active force or at the academies," Galbreath said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Galbreath said, the survey was not conducted this year. He said the nature of the survey and the accuracy it provides, requires it be done in person, rather than via computer. He also said the DOD SAPRO team expects to attempt to conduct that survey again in April 2022.

Also of note in the most recent report is that while service academy students report confidence in their officer and academy leadership, they don't have the same trust in their student leadership, Galbreath said.

"Overall, our surveys and our focus groups tell us that student culture really impacts the experience of cadets and midshipmen," he said. "What we find is that our feedback and our focus group data says that the cadets and [midshipmen] don't have a lot of confidence in their cadet chain of command to step-up and do the right thing, when placed into positions of learning how to lead."

Galbreath said the DOD SAPRO team asked the service academies to take steps to better prepare those student leaders to intervene and enforce standards of discipline, dignity and respect.

"Sexual assault and sexual harassment are persistent and disruptive problems that have no part in military service," Army Maj. Gen. Clement Coward, the director of DOD's SAPRO, said. "The academies are making progress, but considerable work remains to continue reducing and stopping sexual assault at the academies. We look forward to visiting the academies this summer to review their efforts in depth and align them with the secretary of defense's vision and direction to eliminate the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment from our military."

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