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Sexual assaults are up at Naval Academy — or are they?

By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun –

BALTIMORE — Reports of sexual assaults at the Naval Academy doubled last year, the fourth straight year the number has increased, according to the Defense Department.

But do the findings of the Pentagon report on sexual harassment and assaults mean that such incidents are on the rise in Annapolis? Or do they show that midshipmen have grown more aware of sexual assault and are more likely to report it to authorities?

Academy officials and critics alike hope it’s the latter — but say it is impossible to know for certain.

The report released recently by the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office underscores a key difficulty confronting officials as they tackle a problem that has long vexed the service academies and the military as a whole.

While studies and surveys on sexual violence within the ranks have contributed to a growing body of information, neither critics nor officials believe they capture all of the incidents taking place.

Twenty-two assaults were reported at the Naval Academy during the 2010-2011 academic year, double the 11 reported the year before.

But the number of midshipmen subjected to unwanted sexual contact — defined as ranging from unwelcome touching of “sexually related areas of the body” to attempted or completed intercourse — is believed to be much higher.

The Defense Manpower Data Center estimated last year that 271 midshipmen had experienced such contact in 2009-2010, the last year for which data were available.

While the new Pentagon report does not give details of the 22 assaults, the time period it covers would include the case of Patrick Edmond, the second-year midshipman who was found guilty in September of raping a female midshipman in her dorm room in October 2010 and lying to military officials.

Edmond was dismissed from the Navy and sentenced to six months in a military prison. His was the first court-martial for sexual assault at the academy since 2008.

Cmdr. Lynn Acheson took over sexual assault education and response efforts at the academy last year as the number of assaults reported there was doubling. She cannot say whether the actual number of attacks there is increasing or declining.

“I have no way of knowing, because if somebody doesn’t come forward and tell me, for whatever reason — and there are probably lots of them — I don’t know, because they’re not saying anything.”

Acheson sees a couple of factors leading to increased reports. First, she says, the midshipmen “understand much better now what constitutes unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment.”

“Two,” she adds, “I think they’ve seen the system work. And they feel comfortable coming into my office knowing that we’re going to, to the absolute extent possible, maintain their privacy and the confidentiality and get them the help they need to work through this.”

The number of sexual assaults reported within the 4,600-member Brigade of Midshipmen has climbed in each of the past four years. After a recent low of five reports in 2006-2007, there were six in 2007-2008, eight in 2008-2009, 11 in 2009-2010 and 22 in 2010-2011.

The number of midshipmen estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact also is growing. The 271 estimated in the Defense Manpower Data Center’s 2010 Service Academy Gender Relations Survey was up from 155 in 2007-08, which was up from 113 in 2005-2006.

More than 16 percent of female midshipmen said they had experienced such contact in 2009-2010. Of those, 99 percent said the offender was male, and 90 percent said the offender was a fellow midshipman.

Only 8 percent of the women said they had reported the incident to a military authority or organization.

The report says they gave several reasons for keeping the incident to themselves: feelings of discomfort, shame and embarrassment; doubts that their report would be kept confidential; fears of gossip and damage to their reputations; and concerns about the impact a report would have on their careers.

At least one critic suggests another reason. Greg Jacobs, policy director for the New York-based Service Women’s Action Network, says punishments for sexual assault at the academy are insufficient.

Of the seven cases described in the Pentagon report, four ended with some sort of sanction.

The case of a fourth-year midshipman accused of raping a female classmate on academy grounds ended with his dismissal from the academy. A first-year midshipman accused of aggravated sexual assault of a second-year female midshipman was allowed to withdraw from the academy voluntarily.

A prospective applicant who was accused of aggravated sexual assault of a first-year female midshipman on academy grounds was not considered for admission. An ensign accused of aggravated sexual assault of a third-year female midshipman was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and issued a letter of reprimand.

“So here you have people that have perpetrated crimes, they’ve been arrested, they’ve gone through a judicial process and they come out the other end just simply either being kicked out of the school or giving them bad paper,” Jacobs said.

Academy spokeswoman Deborah Goode said in a statement that the academy is “very aggressive” in prosecuting sexual assaults — “even more so than civilian authorities,” she said, “because of the impact of this crime on unit cohesion, discipline and mission effectiveness.”

“In the civilian court system,” Goode said, “most of those cases would never have gone to trial and would have been dismissed with no punishment whatsoever, so the sheer number of cases is evidence of our serious commitment to deterring criminal activity.”

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