Transforming sexual assault prevention in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Dr. Tom Appel-Schumacher
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program manager
Air Force leadership takes sexual assault prevention very seriously and continuously works toward creating a culture where sexual assaults are eliminated.

To that end, senior Air Force leaders recently participated in a Sexual Assault Prevention Summit at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., in the continuing effort to improve the process how the Air Force deals with sexual assault investigations, better care for the victims and ensure perpetrators are convicted.

The overarching tone of the summit squarely placed the responsibility of changing the culture on the shoulders of leaders at all levels in the Air Force. For example, studies suggest that sexual assaults can increase by as much as 30 percent in organizations where inappropriate relationships or off-colored remarks are tolerated.

Summit participants also explored how victims are perceived and treated once they come forward.

One of the guest speakers, Mary Lauterbach, whose daughter was sexually assaulted and murdered at the hands of her Marine perpetrator, called on leaders to first believe the victim's story. She added that the facts will come out eventually, but leaders must first believe and support victims so they know they are in an environment that will offer physical and emotional assistance and pursue justice.

On the other side of that coin alleged perpetrators must be more aggressively investigated, especially with regard to their patterns of behavior. It is estimated that between 3 and 5 percent of sexual assault perpetrators commit more than 90 percent of the assaults. Alleged perpetrators often are masters at deception, and more times than not, are stellar performers in the workplace. So, if a person is accused of sexual assault, an investigation of facts is the best way to proceed toward prosecution.

Some recent procedural changes were also briefed at the summit. Some of them include:

- Dependents of military members, 18 years and older, can now file "restricted" reports.

- Expedited transfers for victims who filed an "unrestricted" report are now possible.

- Records and forensic evidence is now to be kept for 50 years for "unrestricted" reports, and for 5 years for "restricted" reports.

- Both the sexual assault response coordinator and a victim advocate are now granted privileged communication status, which means SARCs or victim advocates cannot be called to testify in court with information they may have gotten from working with the victim.

- In many instances Defense Department civilians and contractors working overseas or at deployed locations may now access emergency care and the services of the SARC and victim advocate.

- In the future, both SARCs and victim advocates will be required to be credentialed by a national accreditation agency.

- The initial disposition of a sexual assault case will be referred to at least an O-6 at a special court-martial level or a general court-martial level for investigation.

- By Oct. 1, 2013, every wing will have a full time SARC and a full time victim advocate.

In addition to those changes, the Air Force has also put a focus on more efficient training. The new Bystander Intervention Training, hailed as the cornerstone of the Air Force sexual assault prevention strategy, is a unique, data-based intervention program, which teaches Air Force members how to recognize dangerous behaviors in social settings, especially where alcohol and behavior of a sexual nature are intertwined. The class also provides members with ways to intervene in order to prevent a sexual assault from happening in the first place.

The Air Force has come a long way in creating a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault. As leaders in this awesome Air Force Family, it is our responsibility to continue to take the courageous steps along with our peers and subordinates to ensure all women and men can expect to live in a culture free of sexual violence and unwanted sexual conduct.