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Sexual assault in the military increased 18% from the previous year, finds report

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sexual assault at U.S. military academies is on the rise. That's the conclusion of a Pentagon report released Friday. Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce says the worsening trend comes despite years of stepped-up efforts to address the problem.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: The Defense Department began anonymous surveys of unwanted sexual contact in 2006 in the wake of a scandal involving widespread sexual assault at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The latest survey shows not only the highest rates of assault on record but an 18% increase from the previous record in 2018. Pentagon spokeswoman Beth Foster says there's really no other way to describe the results. They're upsetting.

BETH FOSTER: Our cadets and midshipmen, our future military leaders should be able to learn and grow in an environment free of sexual assault and harassment.

BOYCE: Rates increased for both women and men at all three academies, the most dramatic spike for women at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Alcohol was cited as a factor in more than half the cases. Over the last two decades, the military has installed sexual assault prevention offices at the academies. Students undergo extensive training on appropriate conduct. Foster says academy leaders just still need better guidance.

FOSTER: Because the science and data has evolved so much in this space in recent years, they need new tools and capabilities to get after this.

BOYCE: The military has tried to make it easier for victims to come forward. Cadets and midshipmen can now report assault without being cited themselves for misconduct such as underage drinking. Rachel VanLandingham is president of the National Institute of Military Justice. She says Congress is also looking to change who prosecutes such claims.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM: Whether it's a lawyer that's independent from the chain of command versus a commander, out of this realization that individuals in the military don't trust their commanders to make good decisions in this arena.

BOYCE: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says each academy will receive an on-site evaluation of their sexual assault prevention policies by the end of April. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.