Military takes cues from colleges for sex assault prevention

HARTFORD, Conn. — As the U.S. Air Force prepared to roll out a new sexual assault prevention strategy, it sent a delegation to Connecticut College, a small liberal arts school that introduced the same program several years earlier.

The visit last month — including conversations with students, athletic coaches and others — was the latest example of the military taking cues from colleges and universities to try to stem sexual assault, a problem that has been the target of crackdowns in recent years for both higher education and the armed forces.

As Congress stepped up pressure to curb rape in the military, Defense Department officials began visiting colleges around the United States, taking notes on approaches that worked best. Some used theater-style instruction. Others emphasized small group conversations. The review helped to shape the military’s prevention strategy, published in 2014.

The scenarios used in college training sessions are often adapted to a military setting, with characters in uniform to help them resonate with service members, said Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. But there is significant overlap, given the large numbers of young people at the greatest risk for sexual assault, he said.

“They’re certainly analogous,” he said. “We’re dealing with people between the ages of 18 and 24. What research tells us is that people in this period have yet to actually become adults, at least as far as their brain structure goes.”

The Air Force visited Connecticut College in New London to get an up-close look at a campus that since 2010 has been using the Green Dot program, which stresses the role of each individual and peer influence in eliminating tolerance of violence. The Air Force is introducing the program at all installations across the service.

“This is a total force effort,” said Col. Mark Ramsey, a division chief for the Air Force sexual assault prevention office.

On the campus visit, Ramsey said, he was impressed to see the program’s teachings adopted by the entire campus, including men’s athletic teams.

A member of the men’s ice hockey team, Tom Conlin, told the colonel how upperclassmen on the team explain to new members how they participate in the program. Conlin, a senior from Norwood, Massachusetts, helps to organize an annual Green Dot game in which players were green jerseys in a show of support.

“It’s definitely something we take in high regard, and when our new players come in, we really get them up to speed on our team culture and what we believe in,” he said.

Sexual assault continues to pose a challenge for both the military and institutions of higher education.

Amid an outcry over the prevalence of rape on campuses, colleges and universities have been directed by the government to do more to take assault reports seriously. As of mid-March, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was conducting 219 investigations into the handling of sex assault cases at 173 schools.

The Pentagon has been working to change behaviors since the problem gained new attention in recent years with reports on elevated rates of assault in the ranks. Earlier this year, the Defense Department said reports of sexual assaults surged in the previous school year at its own service academies, though officials said the increases were due largely to students’ growing confidence in the reporting system and expanded awareness programs.

In the civilian and military realms, officials say prevention programs — many of them pioneered in higher education — are making a difference.

Around 2011, Galbreath himself visited many campuses, including Rutgers in New Jersey and the University of Kentucky, to learn about successful approaches. Some programs used at colleges were adopted by the armed forces, such as the contract the Army has with “Sex Signals,” a program that uses an improv-comedy approach to discuss sexual interaction. As a whole, the lessons from colleges, along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were reflected in the military’s 2-year-old comprehensive prevention strategy.

Galbreath said the military’s programs have evolved to the point that he hears from college trustees seeking guidance themselves. He said school officials have asked about the military’s learning curve and elements of its programs, such as special counsel for victims.

Alan Berkowitz, a consultant who has worked with colleges and military organizations on sexual assault prevention, said Defense Department programs have evolved to the point that colleges and the armed forces can learn from each other.

“While initially the direction of influence was more from the civilian sector, specifically higher education, toward the military, now the military work is advancing to the point where we’re moving to the point of cross-fertilization,” he said.

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