Sexual assault prevention: Response must extend beyond legal realm

Academy cadets and staff members gather around a bonfire in observance of sexual assault awareness month for the 'Take Back the Night' event April 17. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Liz Copan)

Academy cadets and staff members gather around a bonfire in observance of sexual assault awareness month for the 'Take Back the Night' event April 17. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Liz Copan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Every time the Air Force puts a convicted sex offender behind bars, it sends a powerful message: There is no place in the force for those who would prey on their fellow Airmen.
But a comprehensive sexual assault prevention and response program cannot afford to focus exclusively on delivering justice to perpetrators. It must also offer help for victims.

Three cases at the Air Force Academy went to courts-martial in the 2012-2013 academic year. That same academic year, 14 other cases opened based on reports during that academic year and did not go to trial or were dismissed in the Article 32 stage.

The Bill of Rights affords defendants with several rights, including the right to confront witnesses against them and the right to the presumption of innocence, unless prosecutors can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But it's hard to meet such a high standard when prosecutors, with little or no forensic evidence, have to rely on circumstantial "he-said, she-said" evidence. That may be part of the reason why only about 3 percent of sexual predators ever see a day in prison, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Air Force judge advocates, then, have their work cut out for them, as do the Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents who handle unrestricted reports of sexual assault. And so do sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates, who work to help victims who report their assaults through either unrestricted or restricted channels. The JA and OSI here investigated roughly 18 unrestricted reports here in 2012-2013; the Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office handled those and 27 other restricted reports, for a total of 45.

That number may include some cases that don't fit under traditional or legal definitions of sexual assault. And that only constitutes about 10 percent of what's really going on, according to the Defense Department's 2013 report on sexual assault at the military service academies.

Based on climate survey statistics, the DOD Sexual Assault and Prevention Office estimates that more than 500 incidents of unwanted sexual contact took place in the 2011-2012 academic year across all three military service academies -- the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the Naval Academy -- out of which 58 were reported.

That's up from 2009-2010, which saw only about 6 percent of incidents reported, but it falls far short of the Department's goal.

Does that mean we need to change the laws on what sexual assault is or how the military handles it? Not necessarily, but it means we need to focus beyond the courtroom: We have to change the climate where people live and work. We have to understand what consent looks like, we have to understand the role of alcohol in rendering people incapable of consent, and we have to train people to recognize harmful behavior so they can end it long before it escalates to sexual assault.

"Considerable efforts are underway to combat sexual assault. Our success depends on a continued proactive, focused and comprehensive approach," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a memo to the secretaries and chiefs of staff of the armed forces May 1. "If leaders establish the right climate, service members will be clear on what they need to do to prevent sexual assault, and victims will feel more confident in accessing support."