WASHINGTON — Students at the three military service academies reported fewer sexual assaults in the most recent school year, and a Pentagon anonymous survey shows that the number of students saying they experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact also declined.
The newly released data caps a year that saw the military continue to struggle with high-profile sexual assault cases among leaders and in the schools. But the report suggests there has been some progress in the schools as the Pentagon continues its push to increase training, improve services for victims and encourage students to come forward and report or intervene when bad conduct happens.
Senior Pentagon leaders said the academies are working on ways to deal with persistent concerns about the role of alcohol use in many assaults as well as bad behavior and disrespect among athletes and alcohol use. But they said there is still much work to be done and that reviews continue.
The new report found that there were 61 reported sexual assaults at the academies — the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado — in the 2013-14 school year, compared with 70 in 2012-13. The anonymous survey showed a similar decrease in the number of students who say they experienced unwanted sexual contact.
According to the survey, about 8 percent of female students and 1 percent of men said they experienced unwanted sexual contact, compared to 12.4 percent and 2 percent respectively when the questionnaire was last done, in 2012. That represents a decrease of about 200 assault victims, the Pentagon estimated.
Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention program, said those survey results represented the most dramatic decline in the last 10 years. At West Point, the number of those saying they experience unwanted sexual contact was the lowest ever. And the naval academy cut the 2012 number in half.
The survey also found, however, that more than 40 percent of students who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact said they also perceived that they faced retaliation, either from their leadership or socially from other cadets or midshipmen. The report was released Wednesday.
This was the first time the academy report looked at potential retaliation, but the findings mirror a recent survey of the U.S. military that said more than 60 percent of the women who said they filed sexual assault complaints also said they perceived some type of retaliation. Those numbers raised concerns among congressional lawmakers, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in December that officials must tackle the retaliation problem head on.
“The continued prevalence of these crimes and the retaliation that takes place evidences a flawed military culture and underscores the fact that much more needs to be done,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The survey also revealed mixed results on sexual harassment.
Overall, nearly half the women at the academies and 10 percent of the men said they perceived some type of sexual harassment. Two years ago, the numbers were higher for women, but about the same for men.
But the academies differed widely, with the Navy showing a sharp decline in harassment of women, while the other two schools had increases.
The differences, said Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention office, underscores the different environments at the academies and the need to make sure leaders are addressing the problems.
Snow said the military continues to be concerned about the retaliation issue. But he also said that victims more often perceive some type of social backlash from their peers rather than professional retaliation from senior officers or leaders.
The Pentagon has been under increasing pressure from top leaders and lawmakers to reduce sexual assaults across the military, improve treatment for victims and address some of the underlying problems, such as alcohol use.
At the academies, officials have specifically pointed to drinking and disrespect and poor leadership among athletes as potential problems.
According to the data, the number of reported sexual assaults increased at the Naval Academy, from 15 in the 2012-2013 school year to 23 last year. The number went up very slightly at West Point, from 10 to 11, and the total at the Air Force Academy plunged from 45 to 27.
More than half the women who said in the survey that they experienced unwanted sexual contact also said alcohol was involved in some way. Less than 30 percent of the men said alcohol played a role, said Elizabeth Van Winkle, who oversaw the survey. She said that the rates were higher for seniors, who are usually older and have more access. And she said that alcohol also appeared to be involved more often in incidents that occurred off the academy campus.
Based on the decline in reports and the survey results showing a drop in unwanted sexual contact, the Pentagon concluded that 1 in every 6 victims came forward in the last year, compared to 1 in 10 the previous year.
Military officials have been developing programs and training across the services to reduce the stigma and encourage victims to report assaults. And they consistently say that they want to see reporting numbers go up to show that programs are working and victims have confidence in them.