Plebes struggling through their first weeks at the Naval Academy are pushed to their limits, often by upperclassmen who spend their summer returning the hard favors of their own plebe summers.

That tradition may be sending some unhealthy lessons that the new midshipmen take with them through their four years in Annapolis, and after graduation when they become junior Navy and Marine Corps officers. It and other factors may be contributing to a spike in sexual assaults at three service academies.

“The main way this is absorbed is, ‘This is how we treat people,’” said Dr. Alva Tharp, a senior prevention advisor for the Department of Defense. “And unfortunately, this carries on for their four years.”

Unintended consequences of academy traditions bumping up against a new generation of midshipmen and cadets, and student leaders unprepared to handle the outcome, were two potential factors discussed Thursday after the Pentagon released a new study aimed at addressing an alarming spike in sexual assaults and misconduct at its academies.

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Department of Defense officials said the academies must train student leaders better to help their classmates and upend what has been a disconnect between what the mids and cadets are learning in school and the often-negative and unpunished behavior they see by those mentors.

In a briefing on the report, officials said that too often discussions about stress relief, misconduct, social media and other life issues take place after hours or on the weekends. The report recommends that those topics be addressed in classes and graded to promote their importance.

The study comes on the heels of a report released in March that showed a sharp spike in reported sexual assaults at the academies during the 2021-22 school year. In an anonymous survey, 1 in 5 female students said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, according to the study.

The survey results were the highest since the Defense Department began collecting that data many years ago.

Student-reported assaults at the academies jumped 18% overall compared with the previous year, fueled in part by the Navy, which had nearly double the number of reported assaults in 2022 than in 2021. The anonymous survey accompanying the report found increases in all types of unwanted sexual contact — from touching to rape — at all the schools. And it cited alcohol as a key factor.

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The trend was worst at the Naval Academy, where 23% of female midshipmen experienced unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment, according to the March report. That was the highest percentage in almost 20 years and tops an upward trend for the past decade, according to the study.

In response to the spike in assaults, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered on-site evaluations at the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York to explore the issues and find solutions. The new report released Thursday makes several immediate and longer-term recommendations to improve assault and harassment prevention and eliminate toxic climates that fuel them. Austin is ordering quick implementation of the changes.

In a memo, Austin acknowledges that the academies “have far more work to do to halt sexual assault and harassment.” He says the increase in assaults and harassment “is disturbing and unacceptable. It endangers our teammates and degrades our readiness.”

Tharp, of the defense department, and Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, described specific recommendations for each academy, since unique circumstances exist on each campus.

In Annapolis, the report recommends adding additional training for student leaders, but also more officers and noncommissioned officers to the academy staff to reinforce enhanced training on leadership. More students are entering the service academies with experience of personal trauma, such as sexual assault or suicide attempts, a trend seen in the wider population of college freshmen.

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That means that the hazing and other rituals of a plebe summer at the Naval Academy are having a different effect than intended. Midshipmen who volunteer for summer duty as leaders of weekslong orientation and training programs are often left without guidance on a new set of responses.

“Peer leaders often just didn’t know what to do,” Tharp said. “That was sometimes a bad thing, and sometimes a good thing.”

The study found that while the academies offer a lot of strong programs, toxic and unhealthy command climates make them less effective. When cadets and midshipmen learn one thing about leadership or prevention in the classroom, but they don’t see it reinforced in other settings, it sends mixed messages about what to expect, about how to be treated and how to treat others.

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Such mixed messages, officials said, create cynicism and distrust.

Implementation of the report’s recommendations will take place over the next year, and then require follow-up by the Pentagon on a continuing basis.

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That will present a unique challenge in Annapolis, where Rear Adm. Yvette Davids’ nomination as the first woman superintendent has been held up with about 300 other promotions because of Republican U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s protest of Pentagon policy providing transport for service women seeking abortions in states where it is either outlawed or severely restricted.

The Navy has named Rear Adm. Fred Kacher the interim superintendent.

The report said training at the academies has not kept pace with change, including the ever-evolving social media platforms, where bullying and harassment can go on unchecked, and how students differ today from in the past.

The report pointed to Jodel, an anonymous social media app that focuses on a specific location and is in wide use by academy students.

Students can get inaccurate information about assault prevention, reporting, resources and military justice from the app, making them less likely to seek help, it said.

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Associated Press reporter Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this story.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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