Commandant, CCLD director discuss Academy's commitment to eradicate sexual assault

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The commandant of cadets and the director of the Academy's Center for Character and Leadership Development spoke with reporters from the Associated Press and the Denver Post as part of a media availability day the Academy held Aug. 13.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams and Col. Joseph Sanders took part in an interview to continue to address reports by the Colorado Springs Gazette and New York Times related to sexual assault cases that the Academy prosecuted in 2012 and 2013.

"We are fully engaged on an issue that is a societal problem," Williams said. "We need to be on the leading edge of solving this."

Williams said cadets are aware and confident in the Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, which allows victims to report a sexual assault in one of two ways. Unrestricted reports allow commanders to hold perpetrators accountable if the Air Force Office of Special Investigations uncovers sufficient evidence to prosecute. Restricted reports do not trigger an investigation but still allow victims to receive help.

"We had two cadets (from the Class of 2018) come forward who'd had sexual assaults happen before they entered the military," Williams said. "When they understand that there is a process they can have confidence in and feel supported in, they realize, 'I have somewhere to go.'"

The Special Victims' Counsel program has also helped victims feel more confident in the reporting process, Williams said.

"That program provides a person that the victim can talk to who's not part of the investigation, not part of the legal team and not part of my command," he said. "It's someone (a victim) can talk to about this process. That has been very helpful for us ... in allowing us to hold perpetrators accountable."

The CCLD's model for developing leaders of character builds a culture of commitment and climate of respect into every facet of cadet life so that cadets will feel confident speaking up when they see something wrong, Sanders said. The CCLD has recently looked into a program called "Giving Voice to Values." The program, developed by Dr. Mary C. Gentile, is designed to help people speak up when they witness wrongdoing within an organization.

Leaders here also believe in looking at the Academy's past to guide its future, Sanders said.

"We're not perfect, but we believe it's important to learn from things that happened," he said. "You can talk about what's right. You can put it on an abstract wall, and it can hang out there, but when you have an actual incident that occurs -- whether it's here at the Academy or whether it happens in corporate America -- those are the types of things we take in and try to learn from."

"We have goalposts for our leaders of character," Williams said. "I can assure you they don't walk off the bus with the standards we expect at graduation. We must develop those in our future leaders."

Establishing those standards means getting cadets to internalize the values and loyalties that they will represent when they graduate as lieutenants, Williams said.

"What we try to do with our development of leaders of character is to internalize a commitment to the profession of arms, our nation, the Air Force and our core values, and the Air Force Academy," he said. "The ideal end result of this is, I've instilled in them the strength to say, 'This is wrong. I'm not going to let this happen.'"

That strength of character is all it would have taken to stop the December 2011 party -- and the resulting fallout -- in its tracks, Williams said.

"Nobody stopped it. Nobody stopped it. What went wrong (in December 2011) is that nobody said, 'This is not us' and put their foot down. That's step one," he said.

Sanders said developing that type of fortitude takes practice.

"It's not natural for us to walk up to someone and say, 'Hey, stop it,' or 'Knock it off,'" he said. "Even if you want to do it, there is a skill to that."

Still, that's what the Academy looks to instill, Williams said. And while eliminating sexual assault is a lofty goal, both for the Academy and for society, he said it's a goal to which the Academy is devoted.

"Someone who's committed a sexual assault, by the time you get them, has probably committed six to 10 other sexual assaults," he said. "So the more predators we can hold accountable, the better we are at eliminating sexual assault in our ranks and, in essence, our society.

"Eventually, I'm going to grow the grass so strong that the weeds -- the perpetrators -- can't grow; they've got nowhere to go," he said.

The media availability day also included AP and Denver Post interviews with Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, Dean of the Faculty Brig. Gen. Andrew Armacost, Athletic Director Hans Mueh and randomly selected cadets.