A culture that cares: Academy program strives to educate cadets on sexual assault, bring hope to victims

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Sexual Assault remains the most under reported crime in our society and the military. According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008 less than half of rapes or sexual assaults against women were reported.

Faced with that reality, the Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention Response program has developed further education and preventive tools, implemented bystander intervention training, extended victim care and worked hard to establish a program victims can trust, and has seen an increase in sexual assault reports this year because of it.

"We're trying to educate, train and raise awareness and I think that's working because we're seeing more reports," said Col. Stella Renner, the Academy's Vice Commandant of Culture and Climate. "To me, a high number in reports isn't necessarily a bad thing because no reports doesn't mean we don't have a problem. It means we don't have insight on that problem. I think more victims coming forward suggests there is more trust in the system."

The Academy's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Teresa Beasley said the program is also seeing victims get help sooner.

"The typical report would usually come in eight to 10 months after the assault, because late reporting is very common," Beasley said. "Now, the average has been three months or less and that is huge because victims are coming in sooner and getting help."

Beasley said she believes from the program's education on sexual harassment, individuals are coming in at lower levels on the sexual assault scale.

"I think we're seeing people come in with less egregious things," Beasley said. "They're saying to us, 'I remember that training and I remember what you said to us and that made me want to come in because I knew what was going to happen next.'"

Beasley said the Academy has pushed to educate students on bystander intervention and has looked into creating a program specifically for it.

"A lot of times when others see questionable activity, they're afraid to intervene because they don't want to be deemed a snitch," Beasley said. "We're not telling them to not go out and have fun. We're telling them to have a plan, a wingman and to look out for each other."

This year, the Green Dot program, a national organization that teaches bystander-intervention training, helped SAPR create videos to demonstrate bad situations that could lead to sexual assault and the different methods a bystander could use to respectfully intervene.

Eighty-eight cadet volunteers participated in the videos and came up with realistic scenarios, Beasley said.

"Its cadets teaching cadets," Beasley said. "The constant themes are risk reduction, trust your gut and look out for each other."

Beasley said cadets also orchestrated activities for Sexual Assault Awareness Month for the first time this year. In April, they promoted different themes each week, hosted activities, made a Facebook page and created a 22 minute video that featured cadet victims.

"The Air Force was so impressed with the video they want to use it," Beasley said. "We're trying to work out a way to use it as training for the whole Air Force and the lead actress in the film, one of our victims, will speak at the SARC conference this month."

Cadets are briefed on sexual assault their freshman through senior year. Topics include different types of sexual assault, consent and respect, victim psychology, victim empathy, leadership roles and holding peers accountable.

"Most cadets will tell you that they get SAPR training all the time and if you count, it's between 10-11 hours," Renner said. "They might hear about it in another setting such as in a law class where they might discuss a sexual assault case and that's deliberate. We try to integrate awareness across various elements here so we can reinforce the message."

Beasley said SAPR educates cadets on the concept of continual harm. It focuses on the importance of a respectful climate because sexual assault often starts with sexual harassment.

"It usually begins with off-color jokes and if nobody says anything it may lead to jokes that are gender specific," Beasley said. "If everybody accepts them, the perpetrator will think, 'Hey I can get away with that.' Then it becomes more personal with comments on a person's body, then maybe a hug, massage and finally isolation."

Renner said she pushes for an environment where such behavior isn't tolerated and won't allow a true perpetrator to hide in the culture and operate freely.

"We often think it's a misunderstanding but the people who commit sexual assault are deliberate and typically have a lot of victims," Renner said.

Ninety percent of the time victims are sexually assaulted by someone they know, Beasley said.

"People tend to think most assaults happen in dark alleys by strangers," Beasley said. "It happens but that's only 10 percent of the time. We want cadets and cadres to be aware of what's appropriate, what a good climate looks like and what is important."

The SAPR meets with Academy leaders regularly and works closely with Academy chaplains, the Peak Performance center, mental health and investigators in the Judge Advocate General, Beasley said.

"Our system is very integrated and we do a lot of cross-training," Beasley said. "We bring in guest speakers and subject-matter experts who are nationally known that train them on investigative techniques and why victims do what they do, which helps them be more effective as investigators."

Beasley said SAPR hands out books on healthy dating and violence prevention. She said the program also plans to do more outreach with the men's and women's athletic teams here and plans to set up a private organization for sexual assault victims.

"The program is getting stronger," Beasley said. "It started in June 2005 and is still around seven years later. I think the Air Force has recognized it's a real issue and policies have become more robust and it's been codified. We're the only installation in the DOD that has two paid victim advocates because leaders know that we need this program."

Renner said sexual assault is a bigger societal issue, not just an issue at the Air Force Academy.

"It's not a new problem," Beasley said. "The good that can come from these publicized cases is that it is still an issue. It helps people see that if they come forward they can get help too and people will believe them."

Beasley said she has worked in victim advocacy for a long time and finds much hope in the service the SARC provides.

"I encourage people to trust us and come forward. We want to help cadets be successful and we have fantastic resources here, world-class providers and a world-class facility."
Beasley said she thanks every victim who steps inside her office.

"I always tell them thank you for coming in and let them know that by reaching out, they're not going to be one of those people I saw who struggled for 30 years after an assault," Beasley said.