As Woman Takes Top Job, Sex Assaults Still Plague Air Force Academy, Crisis Center Says

A decade after a rape scandal rattled the Air Force Academy, reports of sexual assaults involving cadets are surging, according to Colorado Springs’ rape crisis center.

“Recently, we’ve seen an increase in the number of clients from the Academy,” said Janet Kerr, executive director of TESSA, the city’s main support system for victims of sexual assault.

“It’s hard to know what to attribute it to,” Kerr said, but she noted the uptick in calls from cadets coincided with news this spring that the chief of staff of the Air Force’s sexual-assault-prevention unit was charged for allegedly groping a woman in a parking lot. The arrest of Jeffrey Krusinski in May has triggered what Kerr said is the most cooperation she has seen from the Air Force Academy and the Army’s nearby Fort Carson during her 27 years at the crisis center.

“I can tell you that ever since that muckety-muck got in trouble, the military in general is sitting up, they’re paying attention and saying ‘We have to do something about this,’” she said.

The Pentagon this week appointed the first woman to lead the elite academy, which trains Air Force officers north of Colorado Springs. Lieutenant Gen. Michelle Johnson, who graduated from and later taught at the school, has said in news reports that she hopes her gender doesn’t become an issue.

The Academy did not respond about Kerr’s comments late Tuesday, saying its rape-assault-response coordinator had gone for the day.

“TESSA doesn’t belong to us,” said spokesman Meade Warthen, noting that the Air Force has its own programs to deal with the issue.

Kerr said the rise in calls from the Academy is part of an overall 23 percent increase in hotline calls from the general Colorado Springs community. The spike is the highest she has seen in at least a decade.

More calls from the Academy may signal more sex assaults among cadets or a sense among rape victims there that they need help beyond what the Air Force is offering.

“We know it’s happening there. It’s been happening for a long time. We’re not naïve enough that we’re going to eradicate sexual assault. As long as it’s happening, it’s better that we’re getting the calls than not,” Kerr said.

The Academy made headlines in 2003 when news broke around a series of rapes, where cadets were perpetrators and also many of the victims of the abuse. That year, at least 23 women — 13 former cadets and 9 enrolled at the time — came forward to speak about being sexual assaulted. They accused Academy officials of failing to investigate the attacks, discouraging cadets from reporting them and retaliating against victims who came forward. In the decade leading up to the scandal, only one Academy cadet has been court martialed on a sex-assault charge. He was acquitted.

News of the rapes prompted a federal probe, which found that there were at least 142 allegations of sexual assault at the Academy from 1999 to 2002. A presidential panel reported that “a failure in leadership helped create an environment in which sexual assault became ‘a part of life at the Academy.’” “The panel also found indicators of problems in the institutional culture; one in five responding male cadets did not believe that women belong at the Academy.”

“The part that is the saddest thing … whatever we see, whatever the number is, 25, 50, there are probably a hundred more that we do not see,” Air Force Secretary James Roche testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Wayne Allard, then a U.S. senator from Colorado, slammed Air Force investigators for failing to speak with cadets who said they were raped. He also criticized them for not consulting TESSA, whose counselors were providing support to victims.

One of the counselors was Jennifer Bier, who bitterly fought federal authorities in their quest to review her notes from a session with a cadet who was raped. Because she now works for the Army at Fort Carson, she wouldn’t talk about whether the military’s attempts to curb sex assaults are working.

“I’m a filthy, filthy rule follower. I can’t comment like I used to,” she told the Independent.

Since news this spring of Krusinski’s groping charge (later changed to a general-assault charge), TESSA staff has been invited to train personnel at Fort Carson and the Academy and participate in implementing policy changes on the Army base. TESSA has also been asked to collaborate with the Academy on improving its rape-prevention programs.

The general who ran the Academy at the time of the 2003 rape scandal lost one of his stars, and three other top officials were demoted.

For Kerr, it makes no difference that the Academy’s new leader is a woman.

“This isn’t a gender issue, as much as people would like to make it one. It’s a human issue that affects not just the military, but the community as a whole,” she said. “So far as the new superintendent coming in, we’ll see. We have high hopes she’ll take the issue seriously.”

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