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Sex assault reports up by 50% as students return to Military academies in 2020/21

The academic year was the worst-ever for reports of sexual assault and abuse since DoD began tracking in 2005 new report says
West Point Cadets stand at attention during the dedication of a statue in West Point Military Academy on September 10, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
West Point Cadets stand at attention during the dedication of a statue in West Point Military Academy on September 10, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The end of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a massive spike in sexual assault reports at military academies, it was reported on February 17, 2022. The 2020/21 academic year was the worst-ever on record for such reports since the Department of Defence began tracking them in 2005. The news seems to align with sexual assault reports in the US Military, which have frequently been dubbed an "epidemic."

In 2018, sexual assaults were up 40% from 2016 across all branches of the US military. Such cases can often have damning consequences, like the suicide of Morgan Robinson in 2018, after reportedly being gang-raped while on deployment to Afghanistan. In April 2019, the US Navy found a hidden camera inside the women's bathroom of the USS Arlington. These are just some of the many ways sexual assault manifests itself in the military.


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In 2020, sexual assaults in the military were up by 1% from 2019. The situation has gotten so bad, that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed changes in the way the military handles sex assault cases. In August 2021, Austin backed removing the military chain of command from dealing with such cases, as backed by several Democrats. However, it seems like the issue is far more widespread than just those already commissioned or deployed.

West Point graduates listen to speakers during the 2021 West Point Commencement Ceremony in Michie Stadium on May 22, 2021, in West Point, New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Military academies see rise in sexual assault

On February 17, the Department of Defence Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office published its fourteenth Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies. The report covers the academic year of 2020/21, in which a total of 161 sexual assaults were reported. In all, that's 32 more reports than 2019/2020, where students spent a large part of their time studying from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Of that 161, 139 reports "were made by/or against 'actively enrolled cadets and midshipmen'," the SAPR noted. That number represents a 50% jump from 2019/20 and a 7% increase from 2018/19 when students were on campus all year. "The reason for increased reporting is unclear, as the Department did not administer a scientific prevalence survey this year," SAPR added. The office said the Covid-19 pandemic was the season the survey could not be conducted. 

Even with the report, the DoD still estimates that it is far below the actual number of assaults. Under the current system, anyone can anonymously log their assaults, without filing formal complaints. Even then, most people choose not to do so. For example, in 2017/18, the DoD estimated that the 92 assault reports it received were just 12% of the number that actually occurred. "We would like to see that 12% increase to 100%. We’d like to see everyone report," noted Nate Galbreath, the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office’s deputy director.

Incoming Citadel freshmen stand in formation while waiting to be issued a uniform at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina on August 19, 2013, in Charleston, South Carolina. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Focus on prevention, not consequence

Tragically, the numbers show a great increase in the number of sexual assault cases, even as reports of the incidents have gone up. In many ways, it may be because of the lack of consequences. Galbreath noted that of the recent cases, 11 suspects were charged, but none were referred to a court-martial. Three are currently being investigated, with the other eight ended in "administrative action." 

Galbreath noted that right now, the focus for the DoD was on prevention. "The goal over time is to actually see that prevalence decrease instead of increase and so that’s why we’re investing heavily in prevention," he added. It's why the DoD report ends with recommendations such as facilitating "greater use of CATCH", the program designed to log sexual assaults, and hiring a sexual assault prevention director.

The DoD has also begun roping in "influencers" or role models from within military academies to help change the culture. "The best bet for shaping the attitudes and behaviors of men, in particular, is still working through male influencers," said Ashlea Klahr, DoD’s director of health and resilience leadership. The program has had debatable results at best, with Klahr herself noting, "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."