Air Force, Army, Navy Secretaries host first national discussion on sexual assault, harassment

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson joined her Army and Navy counterparts April 4-5, for the first national discussion on sexual assault and sexual harassment at America’s colleges, universities and service academies summit at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

“My colleagues and I believe we have an obligation to share what we are learning and to work with colleges and universities across America to reduce the instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment in every community and on every campus,” Wilson said. “That’s what this conference is about – our willingness, as institutional leaders, to admit that we don’t have the answers, but we all know we have problems. And we’re more likely to be able to reduce the instances of sexual assault if we work together.”

Subject matter experts and key stakeholders – including members of Congress, civilian college and university leaders, and Department of Defense and Military Service Academy heads – provided messages, recommendations and strategies to improve responses to incidents of sexual assault and harassment.

The summit began April 4 with opening remarks of the secretaries of the Navy and the Army.

Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper said, “Sexual assault and sexual harassment are no doubt difficult problems. But working together we have the opportunity to better understand the root causes, exchange innovative ideas and work toward the goal of ridding our institutions of these crimes.”

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer followed Esper by reiterating his previous remarks that students of today are tomorrow’s leaders who “trust us to provide a safe and supportive learning environment.”

College students between ages 17-24 are among the nation’s most vulnerable in terms of sexual violence victimization and perpetration, regardless of their enrollment in a military service academy or civilian college or university.

Following the press conference in the morning, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., was the keynote speaker. She shared her personal connection to the military, service academies and as a survivor of military sexual assault.

“There are survivors in plain sight, they are among you in this room whether you have told anyone or not,” McSally said. “For me, I could just speak for myself, it was actually a part of what strengthened me and gave me more resolve to fight for others, to stop these things from happening.”

McSally reiterated her commitment to meeting with military leaders to find ways to better inform and equip commanders with the tools to respond to incidents of sexual assault.

“All of their promise and all of their potential, and everything they had when they were dropped off at your universities or your academies – it’s snuffed out. Because of this issue,” she said. “Let’s be honest about it. Let’s figure out how to do something really different, really meaningful to change the culture … Thank you for being here, thank you for your commitment to this.”

The first panel of the summit was about prevention strategies. Experts Dr. Ernest Jouriels of Southern Methodist University, Dr. Sara DeGue of the Centers for Disease Control, Katie Hood of One Love, and Dr. Jackson Katz of MVP Strategies, each discussed ways of preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. Panelists’ input has been beneficial to understand how to recognize opportunities for bystander intervention to eliminate toxic behavior and prevent sexual assault.

DoD leadership emphasizes that service members, civilians, cadets and midshipmen are expected to exemplify the services’ core values in their personal and professional lives, and are also responsible for reporting misconduct when they witness it in order to hold their fellow service members to the same high standard of conduct.

All military service academies have Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs or offices on campus, which aim to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Leadership believes that eliminating sexual assault and sexual harassment from the ranks would promote professionalism, respect and trust while preserving mission readiness.

As the first day’s breakout sessions focused on such topics as prevention and healthy relationships, student leaders’ presentations reinforced these themes by focusing on climate leadership and gender specific evaluation.

Congressional leaderships’ involvement at the summit continued with more presentations from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

The last day of the summit opened with remarks from Melissa Cohen, director of the Department of the Navy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and Wilson.

“Here we are shedding light on an important topic that needs our focused and relentless attention,” Cohen said. “And here we are sitting in a community as engaged leaders on topic, knowing that together in partnership we are going to be stronger and in a better position to make effective change moving forward.”

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are committed to working together with colleges and universities to cultivate a network of senior leaders, experts and dynamic thinkers who will continue communicating toward the goal of reducing sexual assault and sexual harassment at colleges and universities.

The service academies have unique sets of data they will share with other colleges and universities to gain a more holistic understanding of the common populace.

On that line, Dartmouth College’s President Philip J. Hanlon delivered a ‘Looking Forward’ keynote in which he said the topic is central to fulfilling the academic mission and the ability of students to thrive.

“We know that our institutions cannot maximize academic excellence unless campuses are safe, equitable, diverse, and inclusive,” Hanlon said as he shared lessons learned from initiatives to reduce sexual assault at Dartmouth. “If there is one thing that is clear, we cannot achieve our highest aspirations as individuals or institutions without eliminating behaviors that cause most harm to our communities and inevitably hold us back. Thank you for dedicating yourselves to this work.”

Experts had program evaluations on the last day of the summit in a panel that included Dr. Elise Lopez of the University of Arizona; Dr. Sharyn Potter of the University of New Hampshire; Dr. Christina Gidycz of The University of Ohio; and Dr. Ashlea Klahr of the Office of People Analytics. Assessments continued during breakout sessions covering such topics as, innovative approaches, climate leadership and gender specific areas.

Poster presentations, which enabled attendees to share evidence-based practices and relevant data toward that end, included “A Life Skills Approach to Sexual Assault Prevention,” “University of Minnesota's President's Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct,” “Beyond Asking Questions: Mapping Tools Lead to Environmental Prevention Strategies,” “Are There Patterns? Examining the Reporting of Sexual Assault,” and “Prevention Programs: The Missed Component of Skills-Based Communication Training.”

Keynote Speaker of the last day was a national advocate on the topic of sexual assault and former NFL player, Troy Vincent, who shared his own stories. Vincent has been also known with his ‘Call2Lead’ message asking students, particularly male students, to lead the way in ending domestic violence.
As each service secretary is committed to identifying solutions that improve the lives of the military members, cadets and midshipmen, the torch has been passed to the Army which will host the next national discussion on the subject at West Point in 2020.

Department of the Navy will distribute in a few months a survey to gather data from participating schools on progress made on sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention, and response on campuses.

(Editor’s note: Reporting by the Office of the Navy Chief of Information.)