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Lessons Learned

Training for cadets helps U.S. Air Force Academy confront interpersonal violence

Athletics have played a visible role in stemming sexual violence at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where cadets are trained to recognize the early warning signs of sexual violence. ED ANDRIESKI/AP IMAGES

Colleges and universities searching for answers that help curb sexual violence and assault on campus might find some helpful examples in their peers at the U.S. military academies.

The military has put an emphasis on addressing sexual violence for the past decade, and the annual reports on sexual assault in the military that each branch and academy submit each year makes its efforts transparent. Earlier this year, the academies were lauded for their progress. Their annual reporting showed an increase of 5 percentage points in reports of unwanted sexual contact, helping to close the gap between reported unwanted contacts and the prevalence of sexual assault to its lowest point ever.

Student-athletes have been playing a visible role in the change, filming a video in which they pledge to stand up against sexual violence to campaigning at a U.S. Air Force baseball game by handing out educational materials and speaking out to the crowd.

To get to this point, the Air Force has learned a lot of lessons along the way about what tactics work well and which aren’t as effective:

Leadership starts at the top …

… but comes from the bottom, too. When the Air Force Academy started its program, it first sold the senior leadership on its importance. But just as important was getting the buy-in from cadets themselves. Rather than approach it like a disciplinary issue, the academy sold it to cadets as a leadership issue by establishing the character they were expected to live up to. “If you’re a basic cadet just coming in or a freshman, this is something you do every day,” said Teresa Beasley, a sexual assault response coordinator for the academy. “This is expected on and off duty.”

Focus on the start, not just the end

When sexual violence is mentioned, many people immediately think of its most extreme examples, such as rape. But more gradual steps lead up to the worst acts. The Air Force teaches cadets to recognize the early warning signs: perhaps an inappropriate joke or comments about a person’s body, which might then lead to a hug or other inappropriate touching. “We get young adults from across the nation,” said Col. C.J. Bausano, vice commandant for culture and climate. “They have various backgrounds. We have to establish that baseline for what’s acceptable and what isn’t. So sometimes you have to tell them the first time they’ve heard that something isn’t acceptable.”

Talk about healthy relationships, too

Inappropriate behavior is only half the lesson. The academy realized it was missing an important part of the discussion when it recognized the only time it was talking to cadets about sex was when it was discussing sexual violence – an intimidating subject for young people. So they initiated discussions by talking about healthy behaviors, relationships and boundaries. “We have gotten phenomenal feedback,” said Col. Jennifer Block, director of climate, culture and diversity. “I think it’s the relationship that we develop with them in the room. It’s small. We’re asking them their opinion, and then we have a really great dialogue.”

Have a conversation that doesn’t cast blame

Inadvertently casting blame on men can easily occur during discussions of sexual violence, which sends the wrong training message. To avoid that misstep, the academy changed the format of its educational sessions from a lecture style – which could come across as talking down to cadets – to meet-and-greet discussions in smaller groups. The goal: Keep the education conversational so cadets are not only more comfortable but are more likely to continue the discussion outside the meeting. “By opening up that conversation, you get the message out and you get the information out of what is available for the folks around you so the students can go get help,” Bausano said.

Empower the bystanders

Making others feel comfortable intervening is a strong preventative measure. It reinforces a community of respect, and at the academy it starts with helping cadets feel comfortable talking about the issue and ultimately embracing it. Once they recognize the problem, they’re more likely to take action to stop it. “We teach them that being a leader and stepping in is not just preventing that thing from happening in worst-case situations,” Beasley said. “We want them to know that it’s something you do every day as a leader, and that should become like a habit.”

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