▶ Watch Video: U.S. military academies see increase in reports of sexual assaults, Pentagon report finds

An unhealthy climate of “cynicism, distrust, and stigma” at U.S. military service academies undermines sexual assault and harassment prevention and response programs, a Pentagon review found. 

The review, released Thursday, faults the climate at the academies for contributing to the rise in the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact among cadets and midshipmen. 

The review was prompted by data released earlier this year showing the 2021-22 school year had the highest number of estimated unwanted sexual contacts at the academies since the Pentagon started tracking data. About 1 in 5 women experienced unwanted contact that school year.   

Some of the changes recommended to improve the situation include adding senior officers to help the cadets, grading cadets on leadership training in classrooms and eliminating hazing rituals. 

“Our findings and recommendations don’t only focus on training or activities, but also on the climate underlying these efforts, which requires structural and foundational changes,” Dr. Andra Tharp of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency told reporters on a call Thursday. 

Officials who visited the academies for the review found that, while they already had several programs for prevention in place, the underlying environment breeds distrust.  

Tharp pointed out there is inherent stress at academies, and students with leadership roles over fellow midshipmen and cadets just a few years younger are not sufficiently equipped to lead or are sometimes responsible for unhealthy power dynamics that foster toxic environments. 

One specific recommendation from the review is for the Air Force Academy to eliminate the 4th Class System, in which freshmen are not acknowledged as cadets and are subjected to hazing. 

The recommendations didn’t address alcohol use even though data released in March estimated that about half of the incidents in 2021-22 involved alcohol in some capacity. 

“We can implement all the alcohol and substance misuse, prevention or responsible drinking as much as we want, but if it’s not required, if it’s not graded, and it’s implemented in a toxic climate, it’s just not going to have the intended impact,” Tharp told reporters, adding that the recommendations of the review are meant to address the larger climate at the academies. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a memo directed the military departments to come up with a plan of action to implement the review’s recommendations. 

“While the service academies are dominant in many domains, they have far more work to do to halt sexual assault and harassment,” Austin wrote.