Reports of sexual assaults at the three U.S. military academies surged by more than 50 percent in the 2014-15 school year, and complaints of sexual harassment also spiked, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
A senior defense official says the sharp increases were due largely to students' growing confidence in the reporting system and expanded awareness programs over the past several years. The programs have been aimed at making victims more aware of the reporting process and more comfortable seeking help.
But the increases raise questions about whether criminal assaults and harassment are on the rise or if the numbers reflect a growing willingness of victims to come forward.
According to report documents reviewed by the AP, there were 91 reported sexual assaults over the last school year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado - compared to 59 during the 2013-14 school year.
Reports of assaults went up at all three of the schools, but the number nearly doubled at the Air Force Academy, jumping from 25 to 49.
At the same time, the number of sexual harassment complaints rose by 40 percent, to a total of 28 during the last school year. According to the documents, the most sexual harassment complaints were at the Naval Academy, with 13. There were seven at West Point and eight at the Air Force Academy.
Sexual assault in civilian and military society have historically been a vastly under-reported crime because victims often fear reprisals or stigma, or they worry that they won't be believed or don't want to go through the emotional turmoil of a court case.
Asked about the Air Force increases, officials said the decrease in assaults during the 2013-14 school year may have been an anomaly, and the latest totals were closer to the norm in previous years. Air Force cadets, they said, also seem to be much more aware of the sexual assault prevention and response coordinators on campus and may be more willing to file reports.
The Air Force, however, has seen a number of public sexual assault scandals in recent years.
Senior defense officials said a key recommendation this year is for the academies to put more emphasis on sexual harassment prevention and training, because often harassment leads to assault. The officials were not authorized to discuss the issue ahead of the report's release Friday and spoke on condition of anonymity.
An anonymous survey of military academy students during the 2013-14 school year showed that fewer students said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact than in previous years. Unwanted contact ranges from inappropriate touching to rape. The surveys are done every other year, so there wasn't one accompanying this latest report. One will be done this spring for inclusion in the next report.
Officials also said that the increased training and education on sexual assault prevention has led more students to come forward to report assaults that happened before they joined the academies. Of the 91 reports for the last school year, eight were for assaults that happened before the student entered the military service.