By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Feb. 24, 2022) -- The U.S. military service academies are doing a good job taking care of victims of sexual assault, but they can do more in the way of preventing those assaults from happening in the first place, the acting director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office said.
During a virtual briefing February 17, following the release of DOD's Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, Nate Galbreath said academy programs are "heavily response-oriented," noting that they're good at taking care of victims once they report, ensuring they're given proper support, and following through with criminal investigations.
"With that being said, prevention is what actually moves the needle with regard to decreasing how often sexual assault and sexual harassment happen," Galbreath said. "This is where we're directing that the academies build up those programs."
Already, the academies have been strengthening their programs over the past three years; but more can be done, he said. For instance, while all the service academies have prevention plans, the plans need to be put into policy.
"These comprehensive prevention plans are in place, but they're at risk because right now they are just words on paper," he said. "What we're looking for them to do is to issue a prevention policy at each of ... the academies to lock these plans in and make sure that they're part of how the academies do business in the future."
Also, he said, the service academies need an individual on board at each school that can oversee prevention efforts.
"We also need the academies to hire a prevention champion, a violence prevention program integrator, to address how well the academies' programs are working together and also to make recommendations to the superintendent about what programs are doing well, what programs could be fine-tuned for better performance, and what programs could be discontinued because they're not a good return on investment," he said.
For prevention programs already in place, Galbreath said that the department is evaluating the efficacy of existing programs to best determine where limited resources should be directed.
"We are currently involved in a number of evaluation activities," he said. "These involve scientific testing of prevention programming at each of the three academies."
For instance, he said, his own organization has contracted with an outside evaluation organization to look at the prevention education programs in place at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
Ashlea Klahr, the director of health and resilience research with the Office of People Analytics, also discussed research designed to inform the academies' prevention efforts. One such effort was the 2021 Academy Climate and Networking Study, which looked at which students held the most influence over other cadets and midshipmen. Additionally, she said, evaluations were done to assess student perceptions regarding how cultural norms are upheld.
"For example, we see that 90% of cadets and [midshipmen] are saying that they expect one another to confront sexist behavior when they see it," Klahr said. "However, we see that when we ask folks what they actually do, that the behaviors are not in line with those expectations. There's a gap there."
The results show, for instance, that the majority of cadets and midshipmen report taking personal responsibility for confronting sexist behavior, but those same cadets do not always see academy peers confronting sexist behavior.
"This gap is really an opportunity for the academies," she said. "By sharing these results with the cadets and midshipmen, the academies can let students know that their peers actually expect them to confront sexist behavior when they see it and not let it slide. Students may be reticent to speak up because they don't realize that most of their peers are not okay with it either, and that if they're going to take that first step forward that most of their peers will be behind them."