Air Force: Sex assault scandal confined to the academy

The Air Force in general does not have the same problem with allegations of sexual assault that its academy does, according to an agency spokesman.

The Air Force in general does not have the same problem with allegations of sexual assault that its academy does, according to an agency spokesman.

"There is a cultural problem at the [Air Force] academy," said Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, an Air Force spokesman. But Ford said allegations from Air Force Academy cadets of rape and sexual assaults that have publicly emerged over the last few months are confined to the school and are not an issue within the Air Force as a whole.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, questioned what she sees as the Air Force's differentiation between the academy and the service, noting that both are military organizations that report to Air Force leaders. The Miles Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides support and other services to victims of violence associated with the military.

"The context that they have been trying to put this in is that it is a college campus," Hansen said, referring to how the Air Force has handled the sexual assault scandal that has erupted at the academy. "It is a military installation." Comparing the Air Force Academy with other nonmilitary colleges and universities with regard to the issues surrounding sexual violence would be "inappropriate," she said.

Approximately 56 current and former cadets have alleged they were sexually assaulted or raped while attending the Air Force Academy, which is located in Colorado Springs, Colo. Some of the allegations date as far back as 1993, Ford said. Most have not been substantiated, he added. As a result of the scandal, Air Force Secretary James Roche has replaced top school officials, though he has said publicly that "the problems regarding sexual assault allegations predate the current leadership." Congress has directed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to appoint a seven-member independent panel to investigate the cadets' allegations.

Fifty cadets have contacted Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., with allegations of sexual assault, said John Wood, a spokesman for the senator. Wood said the allegations so far have focused only on incidents at the academy and have not involved the Air Force itself. But Wood said the senator's office would continue to monitor the situation.

Ford, the Air Force spokesman, said a former or current cadet sent an anonymous e-mail message in January to Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper about sexual assaults at the school. With that e-mail, Roche and Jumper "saw that it became apparent we had to do something, so we formed a working group to investigate policies and procedures at the academy," Ford said.

But indications of negative attitudes toward women at the country's major military academies, including the Air Force Academy, came to light in the early 1990s. A January 1994 General Accounting Office report (GAO/NSIAD-94-6) concluded that 50 percent to 75 percent of women at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the Air Force Academy had experienced various forms of sexual harassment at least twice a month. GAO defined sexual harassment as "words, gestures, or actions with sexual connotations which are unwelcome and tend to intimidate, alarm or abuse another person."

Most of the harassment reported by cadets to GAO involved derogatory remarks, not physical violence. In the survey, 59 percent of female students at the Air Force Academy reported experiencing one or more forms of sexual harassment, compared to 50 percent of female students at the Naval Academy and 76 percent of female students at West Point.

According to the GAO report, the Air Force Academy's Ad Hoc Committee on Respect and Dignity reported to the school's superintendent in May 1993 that "disturbing numbers of female cadets reported to the superintendent that instances of sexual assault, improper fondling, and sexual harassment and discrimination had occurred to them while at the academy." In each of the past five years except 1999, the Air Force Academy has conducted annual surveys of cadets on the school's "social climate," which include questions about sexual harassment and assault. But the Air Force has questioned the validity of those survey results, particularly the earlier ones, because of low response rates and other statistical problems. The school, like other military academies, provides sexual harassment prevention training to students.

A sexual harassment survey of active-duty military members conducted by the Defense Department in 1995 found that 7 percent of 28,300 respondents reported sexual assaults that year. Six percent were women and 1 percent were men. The survey, which is the most recent of its kind, contains separate statistics on individual branches of the military. Of the survey's respondents, 9 percent of women in the Marines, 8 percent of women in the Army, 6 percent of Navy women and 4 percent each of Air Force and Coast Guard women reported a rape or attempted rape. One percent of men responding to the survey reported such experiences.

Hansen said that the 1995 report does not provide an accurate picture of sexual assault in the services.

"In the military, there has not been a specific study done on sexual assault," Hansen said. "There have been studies relative to sexual harassment, but there has never been a study done exclusively on sexual assault." Hansen said that sexual assault is "underreported and undercounted in the surveys."

Last month Roche announced a series of initiatives designed to prevent sexual violence against women at the Air Force Academy, provide proper medical care and counseling for victims, and ensure they are not punished for coming forward. In a March 31 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he emphasized that academy cadets must embody the same values that the Air Force service espouses and that the school will be managed accordingly.

"To remain relevant to the larger Air Force, the academy will not be managed as a separate entity; rather it must reflect the values and norms of the broader Air Force while maintaining the high academic standards of a world-class university," he said.

"We recognize that there are some cultural problems, and we think the agenda for change will impact that," Ford said. "Through the secretary and the new leadership there [at the academy], we are committed to creating an environment where we don't have sexual assaults and one where women feel comfortable reporting those sexual assaults that do occur."

But Hansen questioned how much impact the new leadership at the academy would have on the institution's culture. "Leadership changes will not change culture. What you are talking about is climate when you do leadership changes," she said. "It will take at least 40 years-a generation-to change culture."