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COVID short circuits Pentagon's survey of sexual assault at military academies

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WASHINGTON – The follow-up survey to a devastating report on sexual assaults at the military academies two years ago was short circuited by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Military officials had planned to conduct in-person surveys at the academies in the spring of 2020 but the pandemic had forced cadets and midshipmen from their campuses to remote learning, Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told reporters.

The Pentagon will wait until April 2022 to conduct the next in-person survey at the academies, the elite, taxpayer-funded institutions with an enrollment of about 12,000 future military officers.

The last comprehensive estimate of sexual assault at the academies was released in early 2019. It showed that the number of students reporting unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 in the 2017-18 academic year, compared with 507 in 2015-16, a 47% increase. "Unwanted sexual contact" ranges from groping to rape.

In 2019, Galbreath said Pentagon officials were "disheartened" that their strategies to combat sexual assault in the ranks had failed to produce results. The survey released in 2019 had found that about 16% of women and 2% of men at military colleges reported being sexually assaulted, Galbreath said. About half the women students had reported being sexually harassed.

Given the Pentagon's use of in-person surveys, there was no option but to postpone, said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military.

Data from 2021 showed that reports of sexual assault at the academies remained relatively stable. Reports of sexual assault, Galbreath emphasized Thursday, understate the problem as most victims choose not to file formal complaints. There were 88 reports of sexual assaults by academy cadets and midshipmen during the 2019-20 school year compared with 122 reports in 2018-19, according to the report. About 12% of those assaulted file complaints at the academies.

Most cadets and midshipmen, however, were released from the academies last spring because of COVID and received instruction remotely so data for 2019-20 are incomplete.  

Thursday's report follows a vow from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to stamp out sexual assault in the ranks. One of his first acts after taking office last month was to require the services to report on their efforts to deal with the crimes. 

The military has waged a long battle to deal with sexual assault within its ranks. In 2013, the Pentagon released a report that estimated troops reporting unwanted sexual contact had jumped 35% from 2010 to 2012 – to 26,000 victims. That report sparked intervention from Congress, which legislated changes on how sexual assault in the military was prosecuted and required enhanced care for victims. 

The Pentagon issues a variety of reports tracking sexual assault among troops, and it commissions outside studies. In September 2018, the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan think tank, issued a report that found young women troops faced the highest risk of sexual assault, based on a survey of 170,000 active-duty troops.