It was more than three years ago former Vice President Joe Biden stopped at the Naval Academy and urged midshipmen to combat sexual violence in their ranks.
“Sexual violence is the only equal opportunity employer,” Biden said. “It occurs in the wealthiest communities and the poorest communities. It occurs on campuses with the highest SAT scores as well as the lowest SAT scores. It occurs in campuses where you do not wear a uniform and where a uniform is worn.”
That previous year, 44 percent of women and 9 percent of men reported feeling sexually harassed at the Naval Academy. This year, almost 60 percent of women and 20 percent of men attending the Naval Academy said they experienced sexual harassment, according to an annual Defense Department report on misconduct at the service academies.
Both rates are up from 2016, the last time the Defense Department surveyed midshipmen. Fifty-six percent of female midshipmen experienced sexual harassment, up from 51 percent in 2016. Seventeen percent of male midshipmen experienced sexual harassment, up from 12 percent in 2016.
Midshipmen, as well as cadets attending the other military academies, voluntarily responded to a Defense Department survey, which measures unwanted sexual contact, harassment, confidence in leaders and alcohol use among other things.
Despite increased harassment, reporting remains virtually nonexistent. Midshipmen made just two informal harassment complaints and no formal complaints, down from 12 informal complaints made last school year.
Midshipmen frequently didn’t think the problem was serious enough to report or said they took care of the situation by avoiding the person who assaulted them, according to the survey. Across the academies, midshipmen and cadets feared retaliation, negative reactions from their peers or potential media scrutiny.
The Naval Academy has implemented an anonymous reporting system so midshipmen can report discrimination and sexual harassment issues without fear of retaliation or additional stigma. Sexual harassment training occurs during Plebe Summer and leadership complete training every September.
Based on responses to the survey, the Defense Department estimates about 254 midshipmen have experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact. But of the 32 reported instances of sexual assault during the 2017-2018 school year, just 23 victims are represented. Rates of unwanted sexual contact did not change over the last school year, according to the report.
The increase in reported sexual assault, from 29 to 32 over the past two school years, is not statistically significant. But the 32 reports mark the most the academy has received in more than a decade. Of those 32 reports, 17 were unrestricted, meaning the victims did not request confidentiality. An unrestricted report gets forwarded to a commander and referred for a criminal investigation. Conversely, midshipmen can file restricted reports. Mids file restricted reports to a specific individual — either a victim advocate or academy coordinator — who can help them get support and care.
The academy also promotes a leave of absence program, whereby victims of sexual misconduct can take a leave of absence up to one year. The program is designed to give victims the time to get the mental or physical health care they may need and consider their reporting options. Someone who files a restricted report can change it to an unrestricted one at any time.
The academy enforces mandatory sexual harassment and assault prevention and awareness training through its office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Education, or SHAPE, program. Midshipmen participate in the program during every year they attend the academy. Midshipmen attend one fewer session every year, beginning with four during their plebe year.
Following a Defense Department memorandum in June 2017, the Naval Academy revamped its alcohol education and sexual assault prevention programs to better focus on bystander intervention and preventative measures. The jury is still out on whether the changes will move the needle. Those programs weren’t fully implemented until summer 2018, after the Defense Department conducted its survey.
Of the changes the Naval Academy made, officials reduced Plebe Summer training to two phases, with a longer 90-minute session to allow discussion. After female midshipmen demanded curriculum changes, female-only SHAPE sessions for third class mids will focus on the impact of gender expectations and teach strategies for pushing a respectful culture.
This story has been updated.
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