- Courtesy USAFA
- Dominic Angiollo works in the Academy's legal office.
The Air Force Academy's 2003 sexual assault scandal revolved around claims it turned a blind eye to victim reports, and punished the victims.
But more recent reporting paints a picture of Academy leaders obsessed with finding and removing abusers and rule-breakers, while going easier on athletes. Operation Gridiron, for example, used cadets as confidential informants to spy on other cadets, the Gazette reported in 2013. The next year, the Gazette exposed the Academy's apparent preferential treatment of rapists who also happened to be athletes.
Related Sexual assault victims say Air Force Academy uses mental health counseling to get rid of them: The blame game
Related Air Force Academy has a distorted view of sexual assault says former employee: "This has got to stop"
Throughout this time frame, the Department of Defense has been issuing annual reports, ordered by Congress amid the 2003 scandal, that tally numbers of sexual assault reports at all three military academies.
From the first survey, in academic year 2007-08, to the most recent, for 2015-16, the Air Force Academy logged more assaults than the U.S. Military Academy and Naval Academy combined. During that nine-year period, 287 assaults were reported at the Air Force Academy, compared with a total of 267 at West Point and Annapolis.
Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the first female head of a major military academy, was named superintendent in 2013. She's long maintained the Academy is working to create a "culture of commitment and climate of respect" and wants to help victims.
After the Pentagon's 2014 report, which showed the number of sexual assault reports at the Academy dropped to 44 from the previous academic year's 51, Johnson was "encouraged," saying in a release she interpreted the lower number to mean higher "victim confidence in our program." Experts agree that's one possibility, acknowledging that the lower number could mean fewer assaults are taking place. But they also say that the drop could indicate victims aren't reporting assaults for fear of reprisal, ostracism or maltreatment, as acknowledged in the most recent Defense Department report.
Since then, reports of assaults have fluctuated, but declined to 32 in the 2015-16 school year. Another figure, "prevalence" of sexual assault, isn't as encouraging. Prevalence, as measured in an anonymous gender relations survey of all military academies conducted in March and April 2016 by the Pentagon, showed that one in nine Air Force Academy women and one in 60 men said they experienced unwanted sexual contact. The survey was completed by 3,096 of the Academy's 3,925 students. (The Naval Academy had higher rates, and the Military Academy lower rates.)
In written responses to questions sent earlier this month, the Academy says its goal is zero sexual assaults but notes that increased reporting also is good to see: "As we strive to achieve that goal we view increased numbers of reports as a positive, an indicator of confidence in the system. General Johnson has frequently shared with the media and Congress that our goal is for prevalence of sexual assault to decrease, and for reporting to increase."
It's worth noting that when compared to the other academies, the Air Force Academy has far more victims reporting assaults anonymously than those willing to prosecute.
Amid the 2003 scandal, rules changed to allow cadets to file either "unrestricted" reports, which trigger Office of Special Investigations (OSI) probes, or they can file "restricted" reports, which don't trigger investigations but permit victims to seek physical or emotional help while keeping their identities confidential. They're entitled to change the report to unrestricted at any time. The idea was to lend aid to victims, even if they wished not to press charges, while helping the Academy get a better handle on numbers of assaults and building confidence among victims.
The Defense Department data show that 56 percent of the Academy's sexual assault reports were filed as restricted, as compared to the Naval Academy's 42 percent and Military Academy's 22 percent.
Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Teresa Beasley, who was recently removed from the Academy, says those ratios might be tied to who is considered a "mandatory reporter" of sexual assault. At the Air Force Academy, it's a handful of commanders, while at the Military Academy anyone must report, and at the Naval Academy, those obliged to report include officers in a chain of command, those in the legal office and witnesses, among others, say spokespeople at those schools.
But the preference for restricted reporting also could reflect cadets' trust in the Academy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office, but distrust of the military's legal system, Beasley says. (Because the Academy is a part of the military, crimes involving cadets usually, but not always, go through military channels instead of civilian courts.)
"They see what happens with victims when they go forward, and how they're treated in the Cadet Wing," says Beasley. "They're ostracized, and slammed in social media. A lot of bad things happen." That includes victims disenrolled for collateral misconduct, such as fraternizing or underage drinking. "That gets out to other victims," Beasley says.
Dominic Angiollo, who as part of the Academy's legal office oversees all disciplinary actions related to sexual assault, says the Academy is well aware of social media's power. Cadets use it to excoriate victims, he acknowledges, saying, "We noticed there were some statements that could be perceived as social retaliation."
That prompted the Academy to call special meetings in recent years in some squadrons to "have a conversation" about assumptions that cadets make based on misinformation regarding legal matters.
Academy leaders held a similar meeting after several cadets' social media posts suggested that if the accused was acquitted, that meant the accuser was lying. Angiollo says leaders spoke with cadets and explained that acquittal can stem from other factors and doesn't guarantee that the crime never happened.
Another problem: maltreatment, ostracizing and retaliation have very specific meanings in the military's policies. So a dirty look, slurs on social media and the perception someone got passed over for a prime assignment might not meet those criteria as a punishable offense.
Angiollo acknowledges the system of reporting retaliation can be confusing because several avenues are open to cadets, who might not be familiar with them. "If it turns out cadets don't know how to report retaliation, then we need to do a better job to educate them about how that happens," he says.
One statistic that doesn't sound encouraging: The Academy has convicted only three people for sexual assault in the past six years.
But Angiollo says that figure doesn't tell the whole story: "Even when there's not a conviction, there are other means of holding individuals accountable."
Of the 62 sexual assault investigations since June 2011, based on unrestricted reports, 12 resulted in criminal charges, and 26 led to administrative punishment at a lower level than a court-martial. Of those 26, 12 led to initiating disenrollment, of which five are pending. The two biggest reasons criminal charges weren't pursued, Angiollo says, were insufficient evidence and victims who preferred not to, or refused to, participate.
The Academy points to the 2016 gender relations survey, taken anonymously by cadets, that showed nearly 99 percent believed Academy senior leaders, officers in charge of units and cadet leaders, "make honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual harassment and sexual assault." But the data also show that only 49 percent of females felt cadet leaders made those efforts to a "large extent," while 49 percent reported they made efforts to a "moderate/small extent."
But there's no denying Johnson has been under pressure to reduce the number of sexual assaults, records show. In January 2014, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah James told the Board of Visitors — a panel comprising Congress members and others who oversee the Academy and meet three or four times per year — at a special meeting that one of her chief goals was "to continue to focus on stamping out sexual harassment and assault," according to the meeting minutes. The meeting was called after the Academy found itself at the center of five issues "reported negatively in the national media," then-BOV Chair Alfredo Sandoval noted. Those reported issues involved sexual assault, honor code violations and the Academy's Preparatory School.
James hammered the topic again at the June 2014 BOV meeting, saying, "We must make sure we're reflecting, keep the pressure on, and continually measure our success, even as this fades from our headlines."
In short, sexual assault has been a consistent topic at nearly every BOV meeting. Johnson and her predecessors have repeatedly asserted they want to provide support to victims and hold perpetrators accountable.
But some cadets still aren't feeling like they care.