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special to the national law journal Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and an NLJ columnist. “I don’t think he gets it.” That was the assessment of Senator Wayne Allard, R-Colo., in describing the performance of the Air Force Academy commandant, Brigadier General Taco Gilbert, with respect to female cadets’ allegations of sexual abuse. Many Americans may have come to a similar view as Gilbert attempted to defend the academy’s response to sexual assault. It is not a distinguished record by any measure. Exactly how bad it is remains unclear, largely because the academy has done so little to foster reporting of sexual abuse or to deal responsibly with the complaints that have been made. For two decades after women’s admissions, the Air Force Academy did not even keep records of reported sexual assaults. Since 1996, when a rape phone line was instituted, about 100 calls have been placed in an institution of 4,000 cadets, 18% of whom are women. Only 56 cases of sexual assault have resulted in some investigation, and only 20 have triggered formal inquiry. Just one of those accused went before a court martial; he was acquitted. Eight cadets have been expelled. How many cases went unreported and unremedied is impossible to assess, but there is reason to believe that the number is significant and the costs substantial, both to the victims and to the Air Force. Attention has now focused on the problem because a growing number of current and former cadets have come forward with details about sexual assaults that they experienced and the shamefully inadequate responses to their complaints. Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post have profiled women who have been victimized twice-once by a brutal assault and again by the institution’s response. Sharon Fullilove, the first cadet to go public with her case, has said that she believed that a majority of female cadets had been assaulted and that everyone she talked to said the same thing. “They tell you to expect getting raped . . . .If you want a chance to stay here, if you want to graduate, you don’t tell. You just deal with it,” she said in a New York Times interview. Women cadets have reported indifference or retaliation by the academy. Many were sanctioned for their own infractions, such as intoxication or fraternization. Some were dismissed from the academy. Others, like Fullilove, withdrew. Those who stayed were occasionally directed to attend group “therapy” sessions; no therapist was provided. Lisa Ballas reported to the Denver Post that when she broached the possibility of a court martial for the upperclassman whom she alleged raped her during a party, Gilbert left no doubt who would be on trial if the case went forward. She had been drinking, and Gilbert’s view, according to Ballas, was that she should take responsibility for her actions. But so should the academy. And its demonstrated unresponsiveness to sexual assault is finally provoking a response. Colorado’s congressional representatives have called for an inquiry, an Air Force investigative team has been sent to the academy and the academy’s top four officers have been replaced. Yet, according to Washington Post accounts, the team has not met either with cadets who have reported assaults or with the local rape crisis center that has provided services to academy students. Nor is it self-evident that simply changing leaders will change the academy’s culture. Changes must go deeper That will require fundamental rethinking of institutional policies and practices, and the attitudes that underlie them. The picture that has emerged over the past months is of an academy culture that devalues women, reinforces sexist stereotypes and legitimates sexual abuse. To alter those patterns, the academy needs not only more effective rape prevention, reporting and anti-retaliation measures. It also needs to address all of the ways in which women report being made to feel unwelcome and unworthy. If, as military leaders insist, the armed forces has “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct, it must respond to the conditions that perpetuate it. The problem is not, of course, unique to military institutions. Researchers such as Mary Koss from the University of Arizona, who have extensively studied campus rape, find that about 40% of female students say that they have experienced some form of sexual assault, but only about 5% report it, due to the fear of high personal costs and the limited likelihood of sanctions against their attacker. Yet the high incidence of sexual abuse in military academies also poses special concern. As recent events make all too evident, the nation’s armed forces need all the talent they can attract. None of us can afford an Air Force whose officer training makes talented women unwilling or unable to participate. If its leadership “does not get it,” the rest of us need to speak up until they do.

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