Students at the U.S. service academies filed 131 reports of sexual assault during the 2020-2021 academic year -- the highest number since the Defense Department began closely tracking the problem in 2006.
The reports represent a 7.4% increase from the 2018-2019 academic year, which was the last time students spent a full year in class before the pandemic.
It marks a 43% increase from 2019-2020, when students were sent home in March to protect them from contracting COVID-19.
While the increases are “troubling,” they still only represent a fraction of sexual assaults at the academies, according to data released Thursday by the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Students listed 747 sexual assaults at the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Military and U.S. Naval Academies in a survey conducted by the office covering the 2017-2018 school year, yet just 92 were formally reported. The survey is collected every two years.
The expansive gap indicates that the academies are a "long way off" from their public goal of encouraging all victims to report sexual assault and to reduce how often the crime occurs, according to Nate Galbreath, the office’s acting director.
"We recognize that this is a troubling problem," Galbreath said during a call with reporters on Thursday. "It's a horrible thing to have to experience and we are here to help make sure that it happens less often and that victims get the kind of care and support they need to recover."
Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of government relations for the Service Women’s Action Network, called the information in the most recent report “disheartening,” given that the academies exist to educate the future leaders of the armed forces.
“As the Service Academies initiate the changes recommended last July by the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Misconduct and approved by Congress in December, I hope reports of sexual assaults committed by students at our Service Academies will become a thing of the past,” Manning wrote in an email to Military.com.
For the second year in a row, the Air Force Academy had the highest number of reports, at 52, up from 38 during the shortened pandemic year.
The U.S. Naval Academy reported 33 sexual assaults, up from 27.
Although the shortened academic year makes comparing the trend more challenging, since cadets and midshipmen were sent home in spring 2020 to complete their semesters, the number of reported sexual assaults is clearly on an upward trend despite training and education initiatives at the schools.
Galbreath said the academies have worked hard to encourage students to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault and the increases could be an indication that students are comfortable reporting, but they also may indicate that such crimes are on the rise.
He added, however, that the more students come forward, the more “opportunity to hold service members accountable.”
“We’re putting all the policies in place to encourage greater reporting,” he said.
Galbreath said the academies have a solid foundation for addressing sex crimes on campus, with sexual assault response coordination offices that act independently and staff that assesses risk and prevention among the student body.
But while the academies have done some "excellent work" in growing their awareness programs, they need to make changes, he said.
"Their comprehensive prevention plans ... address not only sexual assault, but also sexual harassment and other behaviors that give rise to sexual assaults. These comprehensive prevention plans are in place but they are at risk because right now they are just words on paper," Galbreath said.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office is asking the academies to figure out how to implement the plans and hire a "prevention champion" to run the programs that address sexual assault and violence at the academies, he added.
Of the 131 reports of sexual assault reported during the academic year, 67 were "restricted," meaning the victim did not want to pursue an investigation or prosecution, and 64 were unrestricted.
When factoring in all reports, including those made at the academies’ prep schools and civilian allegations filed against students, 19 males and 130 females filed reports.
Eleven of those cases resulted in court-martial charges, while others found that the evidence could only prove a non-sexual assault offense, the victim dropped the case or there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, Galbreath said.
In addition to the incidents among midshipmen and cadets, 14 students reported that they had been sexually assaulted before they joined the military and 16 civilians, students or active duty service members filed reports alleging they'd been assaulted by an academy students.
New this year, under the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, cadets and midshipmen who made unrestricted reports of sexual assault had access to expedited transfers to another academy if they requested one.
Three students requested transfers and received them, including one who transferred during their senior year and was able to graduate and commission on time, Galbreath said.
The increase in reports comes as the Department of Defense moves to change how sexual assaults are handled within the U.S. military, with new laws stipulating that attorneys trained in special victims crimes have prosecutorial authority instead of commanders.
Galbreath said that transition should come more easily for the academies, which have not experienced the "undue influence" on the reporting process as the active duty forces.
"It's a matter of fact, all three academies have their sexual assault response coordinator offices, well positioned and free from any kind of inappropriate influence," Galbreath said.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.