DENVER — Nine years after a sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy sent shock waves across the military, the Defense Department last month announced a spike in reported assaults at the school — and days later the Air Force filed sex-crime charges against three cadets.
It isn't clear whether the disturbing news means sexual predation is on the rise at the academy, experts and school officials say. It could reflect the academy's efforts to encourage cadets to report any kind of unwanted sexual contact.
"I don't think anybody knows how to read that data," said Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington and a retired Navy captain.
The number of assaults reported at the academy since the 2005-06 school year, when comprehensive record-keeping began, has varied widely. From 10 in the first year, the totals rose to 24 two years later, plummeted to eight in 2008-09 and then rose again, to 20 in 2009-10 and 33 last year. Nearly 80 percent of the academy's approximately 4,600 cadets are male.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday nearly 3,200 sexual assaults were reported across the military last year, but he said the real number is probably closer to 19,000 because so few victims report the crime.
Panetta said the Pentagon would prepare initiatives to reduce the number of assaults.
It's a battle the Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs, Colo., has been waging since 2003.
In January of that year, female cadets came forward to say that when they reported being sexually assaulted, they were punished for minor infractions as drinking. Some went to a local rape crisis clinic instead of academy officers, saying they feared their military careers would be damaged if they spoke with commanders.
Top leaders at the academy were replaced and programs put in place to prevent sexual abuse and to encourage cadets to report incidents.
It's impossible to measure how many crimes the training may have prevented, said Teresa Beasley, the academy's sexual assault coordinator. "How do you measure prevention?" she said.
"The number of reports have gone up," said Col. Reni Renner, vice commandant of cadets for climate and culture. "But it's hard to draw a correlation between the number of incidents and the number of reports."
Beasley and Renner say they believe the school is making headway. They point to a growing number of cadets coming to Beasley's office after speaking with cadets who came forward and were treated well.
Other cadets ask for help with repercussions from an assault that occurred before they enrolled. The academy said five of the 33 incidents reported in the 2010-11 school year occurred before the victim entered the military.
"My sense ... is that we really are seeing an increase in trust in our system," Renner said.
Manning said she has no doubt the academy is sincere in its efforts.
"As to the effectiveness, well, they've got three guys charged now," Manning said.
The academy announced on Jan. 5 that three male cadets had been charged with sex crimes stemming from unrelated incidents between February 2010 and May 2011. Academy officials said the three cases were announced together because the investigations happened to end at about the same time.
Robert M. Evenson Jr. is charged with rape, Stephan H. Claxton with abusive sexual assault and Kyle A. Cressy with aggravated assault. Evenson and Claxton face other, non-sex-related counts.
Cressy's civilian lawyer, Richard Stevens, did not immediately return a phone call. Claxton's military attorney, Capt. Nicole Torres, declined comment. The academy said Evenson's civilian lawyer asked not to be identified.
Hearings are expected to begin next week. Air Force attorneys haven't yet calculated sentencing ranges for any convictions, said academy spokesman Meade Warthen.
It's unclear what effect prosecutions have on encouraging victims to come forward. Beasley said she believes that in general, prosecutions reassure victims that they'll be taken seriously. But a sex-crime court-martial at the academy in the 2008-2009 school year led to an acquittal, and reports of sexual assaults plummeted that year, from 24 to eight.
The academy's sex assault prevention campaign starts before freshman studies begin. Among other things, cadets are told the Department of Defense definition of sexual assault includes "intentional sexual contact ... when the victim does not or cannot consent."
The breadth of the definition comes as a surprise to some.
"When they come in at basic, you see the 'deer-in-the-headlight' look — 'Wow, I didn't realize I'd been assaulted,'" Beasley said.
By the time cadets are seniors, the training includes what their roles as officers will be, including what to do when someone brings a sex-assault complaint.
Manning said academy officials are "trying their level best."
"I think it's a problem we won't totally solve ever. But I think there's room for one less this year, two less next year," she said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said in an interview the day of Panetta's announcement that the military culture has "run amok" and the rules for handling sexual abuse need an overhaul. She has introduced a bill that would create a separate system within the military to investigate and prosecute sex crimes.
Currently, a victim's commander might be part of the decision-making process. That creates a conflict of interest; the commander could suffer career damage if a subordinate is victimized; the commander could be a friend of the suspect; or the commander could be the suspect, Speier said.
"We've got to do something fairly dramatic to get the academies back on track and the military back on track," she said.