ANNAPOLIS, Maryland —
Eliminating sexual assault and sexual harassment from the nation's service academies and universities may be a monumental task, said administrators from the nation's academic institutions April 4.
Combating the threat remains high priority on Secretary of the Army Mark Esper's mind, though. He spoke to an audience of college administrators, superintendents and professors at the National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America's Colleges, Universities and Service Academies at the Naval Academy April 4.
"It concerns me every day," said Esper, who has a daughter attending college.
Esper, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey travelled to the Naval Academy's campus April 4 to meet with service colleagues and take part in a national effort to reduce sexual assault and harassment at colleges across the country.
The Defense Department's annual report on those crimes at the service academies cited 117 reported incidents at the military's three service academies. Another DOD study released last year showed a 10 percent increase in reports of unwanted sexual contact by service members in fiscal year 2017.
More than 300 administrators and professors attended the two-day conference and engaged in discussions on how to prevent sexual assault and how to prepare students better. Representatives from about 120 universities and academic institutions attended.
Panels focused on the importance of bystander intervention during cases of sexual assault, and identifying and reporting key behaviors early to prevent incidents from taking place. Additionally, Dr. John Foubert, the Army's highly qualified expert on sexual assault prevention, participated in a breakout session on healthy relationships.
"I do take it very seriously -- West Point takes it very seriously," said Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, U.S. Military Academy superintendent. "I know my wingmen do as well. Not only the military, but the entire community; civilians, all my coaches, my tactical officers, tactical NCOs and my professors. So it's a comprehensive, integral approach that gets this done."
According to the DOD report on service academies, cadets and midshipmen have confidence in the leadership of their respective institutions. But they don't have the same confidence in their peer leaders.
"Cadets must also trust one another," Esper said. "Across all of our academic institutions, we must inspire students to look out for one another and to not tolerate sexual harassment or sexual assault under any circumstances."
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said that the quality of the prosecution process must improve by providing prosecutors with better tools and training.
Before being nominated as Air Force secretary, Wilson served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a science and engineering college in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Representatives from about 120 universities and academic institutions attended the conference Thursday, only about 10 percent of the roughly 1,200 schools invited.
"I know that a lot of times colleges don't want to talk too much about this issue because they're afraid that it will tarnish their reputation," Wilson said. "I think we need to get beyond that and recognize that (sexual assault and harassment) is a problem and anyone who's not talking about it is not being honest with themselves. We need to address this issue as leaders of American higher education."
Esper met with four Army cadets for about 30 minutes inside the Naval Academy's Alumni Hall to listen to cadets' concerns, as well as educate the students on prevention and awareness.
Cadets Jackie Berry and Cleveland Braswell, ROTC students at nearby Bowie State University, said there have not been any reported incidents of sexual assault cases within their school's ROTC program. However, some incidents have occurred campus-wide. The cadets said educating BSU's student body specifically on sexual harassment could be key to preventing incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. A student's upbringing and social environment could affect their perception of sexual harassment, the cadets said.
"People are just unaware of what sexual harassment entails and they don't really understand the effect that it has on the group and other individuals," Braswell said. "It affects other people's families. It affects their morale. It affects the culture that goes on in work places and schools."
Bowie State's student body is predominantly African American and sexual assault cases have been historically higher with black women than other ethnic groups, according to a report by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Berry said awareness of sexual assault and harassment within the Army has taken increased importance as more women are admitted into combat career fields. They said one possible solution could be to have Soldiers meet with female military leaders, to help Soldiers gain understanding on how to properly behave around females.
Females in the U.S. military have grown in numbers but still comprise only 14 percent of the active duty force and 18 percent of the reserve and guard. In the Army, about 18 percent of officers are female while 14 percent of enlisted are women.
Arizona Sen. Martha McSally will help spearhead the nationwide effort, urging school officials in attendance to re-examine how they train young leaders. McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly during combat in Air Force history, recently revealed a senior officer raped her during her military service. But it wasn't the only incident. The former A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot said she was a victim of a similar incident before college.
"I was preyed upon by a track coach," McSally said. "I had no idea what was going on … Little did I know, as I went off to the military, I would have some similar experiences there."