Pentagon review calls for reforms to reverse spike in sexual misconduct at military academies

FILE - The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington, Jan. 26, 2020. The U.S. military academies must improve their leadership, stop toxic practices such as hazing and shift behavior training into the classrooms, according to a Pentagon study aimed at addressing an alarming spike in sexual assaults and misconduct. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military academies must improve their leadership, stop toxic practices such as hazing and shift behavior training into the classrooms, according to a Pentagon study aimed at addressing an alarming spike in sexual assaults and misconduct.

U.S. officials said the academies must train student leaders better to help their classmates, and upend what has been a disconnect between what the cadets and midshipmen are learning in school and the often negative and unpunished behavior they see by those mentors. The review calls for additional senior officers and enlisted leaders to work with students at the Army, Navy and Air Force academies and provide the expanded training.

The report, which was released Thursday, says that too often discussions about stress relief, misconduct, social media and other life issues take place after hours or on the weekends. The report recommends that those topics be addressed in classes and graded, to promote their importance.

The study comes on the heels of a report this year that showed a sharp spike in reported sexual assaults at the academies during the 2021-22 school year. It said that one in five female students said in an anonymous survey that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact. The survey results were the highest since the Defense Department began collecting that data many years ago.

Student-reported assaults at the academies jumped 18% overall compared with the previous year, fueled in part by the Navy, which had nearly double the number in 2022, compared with 2021. The anonymous survey accompanying the report found increases in all types of unwanted sexual contact — from touching to rape — at all the schools. And it cited alcohol as a key factor.

In response to the spike in assaults, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered on-site evaluations at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, to explore the issues and identify solutions. The new report, expected to be released Thursday, makes several immediate and longer-term recommendations to improve assault and harassment prevention and eliminate toxic climates that fuel the problems. Austin is ordering quick implementation of the changes.

In a memo, Austin acknowledges that the academies “have far more work to do to halt sexual assault and harassment.” He says the increase in assaults and harassment “is disturbing and unacceptable. It endangers our teammates and degrades our readiness.”

Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon's force resiliency office, told reporters Thursday that the study will set up ways to measure whether the changes are working. But she cautioned that “not only are they going to take time to implement, but cultural change does take time.”

Foster and Andra Tharp, the senior prevention adviser for the force resiliency office, said that while the academies offer a lot of strong programs, toxic and unhealthy command climates make them less effective. When cadets and midshipmen learn one thing about leadership or prevention in the classroom, but they don’t see it reinforced in other settings, it sends mixed messages about what to expect, about how to be treated and how to treat others.

Such mixed messages, they said, create cynicism and distrust.

The report points to the Air Force Academy's longstanding system that treats freshmen differently and badly, promoting hazing and an unhealthy climate. Tharp said those students may leave the academy with a poor sense of what good leadership looks like.

“What was striking was that the message was, this is okay here and this is how we treat each other,” Tharp said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t stop once they left their freshman year.”

The officials added that a contributing factor to the behavior problems is that — like other college students around the country — many more cadets and midshipmen are arriving at the academies with previous bad experiences, ranging from assaults and harassment to thoughts of or attempts at suicide. On top of that, the report says incoming students then face a lot of stress as they grapple with their education and the military training.

In many cases, the report says that student leaders aren’t trained or equipped to handle those issues or provide proper support to the students.

Another problem, officials said, is the ever expanding influence of social media, where bullying and harassment can go on unchecked. The report pointed to Jodel, an anonymous social media app that focuses on a specific location and is in wide use by academy students.

The report said students can get inaccurate information about assault prevention, reporting, resources and military justice from the app, making them less likely to seek help.

It said training at the academies has not kept pace with change, including the ever-evolving social media platforms and how students differ today from in the past.

The report also noted that alcohol plays a significant role in misconduct. Asked about additional alcohol restrictions, Tharp said the academies can “implement all the alcohol prevention or responsible drinking as much as we want,” but if those policies are implemented in a toxic command climate they won't have the intended impact.