Rise in Sexual Assaults and Harassment at U.S. Service Academies Linked to Culture and Traditions

Responding to a “disturbing and unacceptable” recent rise in reported sexual attacks and sexual harassment at the nation’s leading service academies, a new Pentagon report Thursday called for stronger leadership, better training and changes to such traditional practices such as the hazing of incoming cadets and plebes.

The study released Thursday warns that the current system contributes to a toxic environment that can increase the incidence of gender-related assault and other forms of misconduct.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the study earlier this year after a survey showed a sharp rise in reported sexual attacks and sexual harassment during the 2021-2022 school year at the West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

More recent numbers “suggest that the occurrence of these crimes is trending upward,” Mr. Austin said in a memo this week to senior military leaders. “This is disturbing and unacceptable [and] it endangers our teammates and degrades our readiness.”

In 2021, some 21% of women and 4.4% of men said they had experienced “unwanted sexual contact” at a military service academy. The figure is much higher than the average throughout the Department of Defense: 8.4% for women and 1.5% for men, the researchers said.

“The training environment and overall climate at the academies are undermining their ability to prevent harmful behavior,” Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency said Thursday. “Unless some of these more structural and foundational issues are addressed within the training environment, these problems are going to persist.”

Each of the service academies uses some form of a “4th-Class System” where second or third-year cadets or midshipmen are the primary trainers for the incoming freshmen, sometimes referred to as “new cadets” or plebes. But the Pentagon researchers said the older students don’t have the maturity or experience to act as suitable mentors.

“The peer leadership structure is actually creating unhealthy power dynamics that lead to hazing that further exacerbates this risk,” said Andra Tharp, senior prevention advisor for the Defense Department’s Office of Force Resiliency.

The service academies have a number of programs designed to support cadets and midshipmen, such as in-house military, family life counselors and affinity groups. But they don’t necessarily address the underlying issue, Ms. Tharp said.

“You can be doing a lot of good activities, but if they are implemented in unhealthy or toxic climates, it will degrade the effectiveness of those efforts,” she said. “If they’re doing all these good things, why are the [sexual assault] rates increasing?”

Freshmen at the Air Force Academy aren’t even referred to as “cadets” and are routinely subjected to hazing from the older students. While defenders of the traditional approach say the system helps create a class bond from shared adversity, that view isn’t shared by all, Ms. Tharp said.

Many students “carry these negative experiences and unhealthy norms about how you treat others through their time at the service academy and into the force,” she said.

Midshipmen at Annapolis told the researchers they didn’t know what to do when they became a peer leader. They treated the incoming freshmen the same way they had been treated during their plebe year. Some West Point cadets who had experience with the Army outside the service academy said they would prefer more seasoned mentors rather than a cadet who may be only a year or two older.

The active-duty military officers assigned to the individual cadet or midshipmen units were often seen more as disciplinarians rather than mentors, the Pentagon researchers said.

“They didn’t know when or how to prioritize a cadet or midshipman’s well-being over discipline,” Ms. Tharp said.

While the service academy peer systems may have been effective in the past, they have resulted in a climate of cynicism and distrust. The rise of social media, a new platform for bullying and harassment, has only exacerbated the problem in some ways, the researchers said.

The peer system “was driving the behavior of the cadets and midshipmen. It must be corrected,” Ms. Tharp said.

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