By LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The number of reported sexual assaults and unwanted sexual contact at the three military academies went down last year according to an annual Pentagon report released on Thursday, but only because the coronavirus pandemic resulted in cadets and midshipmen being sent home for the fourth academic quarter of the 2019-2020 academic year.
Sending the cadets and midshipmen home because of coronavirus safety restrictions also prevented Pentagon researchers from carrying out a large-scale anonymous survey undertaken every two years years that determines how prevalent sexual assaults are at the military academies. The most recent version of that report showed a 50% increase in assaults at the military academies.
The data released Thursday includes only the three quarters and parts of the fourth quarter when cadets and midshipmen were still attending classes at the academies.
Quarter to quarter comparisons with the previous academic year indicated that the number of reports of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact, at least through the third quarter, were going to be similar to last year’s numbers, according to Pentagon officials.
But once the order was given to send cadets and midshipmen home because of coronavirus restrictions those numbers dropped in the fourth quarter.
The report said there were 129 reports of sexual assault involving a cadet or midshipman as a victim and/or alleged perpetrator during that timeframe, a decrease from the 149 reported the previous year.
Looking at reports involving cadets and midshipmen as victims, the numbers decreased to 88 in the 2019-2020 academic year from 122 the previous year.
The Pentagon said there were 20 fewer reports at the U.S. Military Academy, three fewer reports at the U.S. Naval Academy and three fewer reports at the Air Force Academy.
Pentagon officials see an increase in reports of sexual assault as an indicator that victims are willing to step forward to seek medical and legal help. They are not an accurate measure of the “prevalence” of sexual assaults, which can only be measured by the anonymous survey carried out every two years.
“While we were poised to conduct our survey for this year, our scientific survey of cadets and midshipmen, the coronavirus pandemic response measures were employed before we could actually conduct the survey in person with the cadets and mids,” said Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “As a result, this year, our report does not include an updated estimate of sexual assault prevalence or sexual harassment. Instead, we do have recording data.”
Galbreath told reporters Thursday that his office will have to wait until a prevalence report is released next spring to make comparisons to the 2018 report that showed a concerning 50% increase in assaults.
That prevalence report is always conducted in person at the academies, and Galbreath explained that making it an online survey would have likely resulted in a lower participation rate. Galbreath said that the in-person survey at the academies typically results in an 80% participation rate while historically other online surveys generated by the Pentagon result in only a 20% response rate.
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