Update (31 Jan, 2120 EST): Numerous edits to the USA Today story were made over the course of the day, and the final paragraph (quoted at the end of this post) addressing lower overall rates of military sexual assault is no longer part of the story. The version of the story discussed in this post is available here.
A few hours ago USA Today published this story alleging that:
Incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies spiked nearly 50 percent during the last school year despite years of focus on the issue and declarations of zero-tolerance, according to results of a survey conducted by the Pentagon.
The number of students reporting unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 during the 2017-18 academic year compared with 507 in 2015-16, according to anonymous surveys of cadets and midshipmen. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.
(emphasis added). All the usual suspects reacted in their customary fashion. For example, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) is quoted in the story as saying, “Clearly what is being done to address sexual assault in our academies is not only not working, it has allowed assault rates to increase a staggering 47 percent.” Additionally, Don Christensen – a retired Air Force judge advocate and President of the advocacy group Protect our Defenders – is quoted as saying, “Clearly there’s a cultural problem at the academies.”
Wait just one minute.
The DoD conducts an annual assessment of the Military Service Academies to determine the effectiveness of its sexual assault prevention programs, as required by Section 532 of the FY 2007 NDAA. The assessment is called the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, and it is conducted on a Academic Program Year basis. The USA Today story appears to be based on the results of the most recent assessment, for Academic Program Year 2017-2018. The report is available on the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office website, and it disproves the USA Today story.
Let’s start with the top-line assertion in the USA Today story that:
Incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies spiked nearly 50 percent during the last school year. . .
That’s false. Totally fake news.
At the outset, while an increase from 507 (in 2015-2016) to 747 (in 2017-2018) is, indeed, nearly a 50% increase, that timespan is two school years, not one. But that’s not what makes the assertion fake news. Rather, it’s fake news because the underling number is an estimate.
Last year’s report (for Academic Program Year 2016-2017) explained the 507 number as follows:
The Department tracks prevalence estimates over time and compares them to reports received as one of its measures of progress. As illustrated in Exhibit 5, estimated rates of past-year USC [unwanted sexual contact], measured in APY 15-16, indicate that about 507 cadets and midshipmen indicated experiencing some form of USC during the APY, suggesting that the 64 reports received last year involved about 13% of the estimated number of victimized cadets and midshipmen.
App. D. at 9 (all emphasis added) (direct link). Put differently, the 507 number was an estimate of an indication of an experience of some form of unwanted sexual contact, which is not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”
The 747 number is also just an estimate of an indication of an experience, as explained by the current (Academic Program Year 2017-2018) report:
Results from the 2018 SAGR estimate that about 747 cadets/midshipmen experienced some form of USC in the past-year, compared to 92 reports of sexual assault received by DoD from cadets/midshipmen for an incident that occurred during military Service.
2017-2018 report, Appendix D at 11 (emphasis in original) (direct link). A footnote adds:
SAGR prevalence is only an estimation. DoD uses these estimates to measure the scope of sexual assault and the degree of underreporting at each academy.
2017-2018 report, Appendix D at 11 n.10 (double emphasis in original) (direct link). That is also not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”
SAGR – by the way – refers to the Service Academy Gender Relations Survey, which is a survey conducted every other year. It was conducted in 2016 and in 2018. The 2016 report is available here, and the 2018 report is available here. The 2016 report explained the results with this language:
It should also be noted that all results are based on self-reported data provided by survey respondents. Accordingly, results describe experiences that respondents indicated experiencing but may not be interpreted as evidence that an event(s) occurred. All references to “behaviors experienced” should be interpreted as “behaviors reportedly experienced.”
2016 Report at viii (direct link (loads slowly)). That is also not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”
I can’t find the 747 number in the 2018 SAGR report, but the 2016 SAGR report did include the 507 number, with this explanation:
Across all DoD Academies, 4.0% of students (women and men combined) indicated they experienced unwanted sexual contact since June 2015. This represents about 1 in 8 women (12.2%) and 1 in 60 men (1.7%). Based on the 9,376 eligible respondents from a census of 12,564 students, a constructed 95 percent confidence interval ranges from 485 to 529 students, with a point estimate of 507 students who indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact in the past academic program year (APY).
2016 Report at x (direct link (loads slowly)). You can draw your own conclusions about those percentages, but USA Today’s report of “507 [incidents of sexual assault] in 2015-16” is fake news.
The USA Today story does, however, include some real news about military sexual assault. The very last paragraph explains:
There has been some progress: rates of sexual assault for active duty men and women decreased between 2016 and 2014 and are at the lowest level since 2006, according to the Pentagon.