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WASHINGTON (AP) — Reports of sexual assaults at the three major military academies surged in the 2014-15 school year, led by the Air Force Academy, where the number nearly doubled, the Defense Department said Friday.
Complaints of sexual harassment also spiked, the department said.
Pentagon officials said the sharp increases were due largely to students' growing confidence in the reporting system and expanded awareness programs, but the announcement raised nagging questions about whether sexual misconduct is rising at the schools.
"I think it's appropriate for people to feel frustrated about hearing this in the news. Bottom line is that if this were an easy problem, we would have solved it years ago," said Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office. "Unfortunately, this is a very hard problem to solve."
The Army, Navy and Air Force academies received a total of 91 sexual assault reports in 2014-15, up from 59 in the previous school year, an increase of 54 percent.
The Air Force Academy accounted for 49 of the sexual assault reports, compared with 25 the previous year. Officials at the school outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, declined to be interviewed but issued a written statement saying the 25 reported in the 2013-14 school year was unusually low compared with previous years. The school had 51 reports in 2011-12 and 44 in 2012-13.
The Air Force Academy statement said victims are the school's main concern.
"In order to provide them the care they need, we must encourage them to come forward and report these crimes. In doing so, cadets demonstrate their trust and confidence in our program," the academy said.
The U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, reported 17 assaults in 2014-15, up from 11 the previous year. The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, reported 25, compared with 23 a year earlier.
Senior Pentagon leaders have argued for years that increased reporting is a good thing because it suggests victims are more willing to come forward. Sexual assault in civilian and military society has historically been a vastly underreported 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.
Eight of the 91 assaults reported in the 2014-15 year occurred before the student entered military service, the Pentagon said.
Also, sexual harassment complaints rose by 40 percent to a total of 28 during the last school year. The Naval Academy had 13, Air Force eight and West Point seven. School-by-school totals for the previous year weren't released.
Galbreath 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. Discussions with focus groups and other studies found that while students know how to report sexual assaults and how to treat victims, they didn't know as much about what makes up sexual harassment and what to do about it.
One problem is that sexual harassment is handled by various military Equal Opportunity offices, while sexual assault issues are handled by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Offices.
"That improved emphasis on sexual harassment will likely lead to prevention of sexual assault," Galbreath said. "We are smarter now and we know that a lot of other factors are beginning to play into prevention work."
The military held 10 focus group sessions in March and April 2015 with academy students, faculty and staff, and the discussions revealed progress in attitudes about harassment, officials said. An increasing number of students spoke about becoming more active in preventing or objecting to harassing comments, including online.
Seven of the focus groups were with students and three with faculty and staff.
Almost 200 students and nearly 100 faculty and staff took part.
Elliott reported from Longmont, Colorado.
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