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American Forces Press Service

Service Academies Make Progress in Preventing Sexual Assault, Harassment

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2007 – The Defense Department’s Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the U.S. Service Academies, released late last week, concludes that the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., all have made “great progress” in establishing prevention and response programs.

These programs begin during cadets’ and midshipmen’s first terms at their respective schools, laying the foundation for follow-on instruction that continues every term throughout their academy years.

The report, which covers the 12-month period that ended May 31, evaluates the academies’ expanded sexual assault prevention and response programs, their sexual harassment programs, and feedback from cadet and midshipmen focus groups about how they’re working.

The report cites “robust” programs that ensure every cadet and midshipman understands what sexual harassment and sexual violence is, what to do if they or someone else is victimized, and their responsibility as leaders to intervene. It holds the academies up as a model for other colleges and universities, noting that they’ve fully implemented their sexual assault prevention and response programs and that they blend “seamlessly” into their curricula.

Army Col. Jeanette McMahon, the U.S. Military Academy’s special assistant to the superintendent for human relations, said these efforts underscore the academies’ -- and the military’s -- zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Meanwhile, she said, it helps ensure a common base of understanding for all cadets and midshipmen.

“Prevention is a long-term changing of people’s outlooks and behaviors,” she said. “We are looking at our climate and how we can educate and train the cadets … to a common set of values that we abide by in the military and the Army and also here at West Point.”

Navy Cmdr. Ricks Polk, the Naval Academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, emphasized the negative effect of sexual misconduct. “It degrades good order and discipline and erodes the very fabric of unit cohesion,” he said.

“If those things are going on behind the scenes, … they are going to just tear apart the very thing we are trying to build,” he said. “We are trying to build a team. This is going to destroy that team.”

If Army Maj. Dave Cushen at West Point had to boil down the concepts being instilled at the academies to one word, he’d sum it up as “respect” for oneself and others, he said. As assistant to the Military Academy’s commandant on issues of respect and equal opportunity, Cushen called respect a critical element of leadership that cadets and midshipmen will draw on long after graduating from their respective schools.

Those lessons begin at the academies as students come to recognize their responsibility as leaders to do what’s right, including stepping forward when they see situations of sexual assault or harassment, Polk said.

“Even though you are fourth class (a first-year midshipman) and you don’t necessarily see yourself as a leader yet, you can still be a leader by the fact that you step up when you see something that’s not right,” he said.

By building a climate of respect, both for cadets themselves and for others, the academies are instilling principles cadets and midshipmen will draw on long after their academy years, he said.

“The fact is, they are going to see these things going on when they are in leadership positions, both here at the academy and when they get to the fleet,” Polk agreed. “They are going to see situations where someone has said (something) or taken action inappropriately, and they will need to react to it. They are responsible for moving forward on it.”

When they take these principles to the field and fleet as junior officers, academy graduates will set an example through their personal behavior and the way they talk to and treat others, Burger said.

“And I think it always goes back to the respect foundation, that bedrock,” she said. “As a leader, if you are being respectful of yourself and others, then you are going to be going in the right direction in setting a command climate of how … your subordinates treat each other and what’s acceptable to you and what’s not,” she said. “That carries weight. … It’s the impact of one person and how many people they can influence.”

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