WASHINGTON — A culture of hierarchy at the Air Force Academy -- where freshman cadets are expected to obey the commands of upperclassmen -- contributed to dozens of sexual assaults under investigation at the institution, an Air Force panel concluded Thursday.
Although 142 cases have been reported at the academy since 1993, the group of senior officers looking into the scandal determined that there is no "systemic acceptance" of sexual assault at the Air Force's premier officer training school.
"Just by the nature of the way the hierarchy works at the academy, there is potential for abuse. We know many of the victims were freshmen," said Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, a member of the panel's fact-finding team that made recent visits to the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., as part of the Pentagon's probe, one of several being conducted.
The investigators found that although it was not the policy of those in charge to tolerate sexual abuse, it occurred in a climate unfriendly to women and because of lapses in the system designed to prevent assaults.
There is "no systemic acceptance of sexual assault ... no institutional avoidance of responsibility or systemic maltreatment of cadets who report sexual assault," the officials concluded.
But other cultural factors combined to create an unsafe environment for cadets, the panel found, including a hierarchy in which freshmen are on the lowest rung of the ladder of power, making them "more vulnerable to cadets who might abuse their authority."
More than half of the alleged victims were first-year cadets, although freshmen make up just 23% of the student body, the panel found.
Also at work was a tendency by cadets to "place loyalty to peers above loyalty to values [and] a lack of emphasis on good character as a key aspect to sexual assault deterrence training."
And the investigators cited a male-dominated climate in which "negative comments and some other forms of sexual harassment have existed despite programs to eliminate them."
Those factors -- along with alcohol abuse found in 40% of the cases examined -- combined to create a "less than optimal environment to deter and respond to sexual assaults and to bring assailants to justice," the report found.
A list of 36 recommendations by the panel included assertiveness training for first-year cadets and a reevaluation of the cadet command structure. It also urged better training for cadets and counselors, more monitoring of gender attitudes and changes to the system of confidential reporting that made investigation into the allegations impossible in many cases.
"We put in an aggressive agenda for change," Ford said. "We think we've put a program in place that will alleviate the situation."
The academy was thrown into turmoil in February with reports that dozens of former and current cadets, most of them women, had been assaulted and raped, only to have their complaints ignored by those in command. Many victims said they were ostracized for having reported the crimes, while assailants went unpunished.
A working group of more than a dozen military and civilian officials already had been chartered to investigate the alleged assaults at the youngest of the military's four academies, where 4,000 cadets -- about 18% of them women -- study to become Air Force officers.
Of the 142 attacks reported over the last 10 years, only 61 carried sufficient information to conduct an investigation. Many were submitted confidentially and did not include the names of alleged victims or attackers, officials said.
Of the 61 cases examined by the panel, 40 involved cadets assaulted by other cadets; 19 of those were rape allegations. Accusers ultimately recanted in three of those rape cases.
About half of the reports that were fully investigated "did not result in evidence sufficient to initiate action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice," the panel said. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche is reviewing the report and will decide what further steps should be taken.
Although critics have faulted the academy's leadership for allowing a dangerous climate to exist, the panel did not hold any leaders accountable.
"Our charter was to look at policy, programs and practice," said Air Force general counsel Mary L. Walker, who led the group.
The report was delivered to Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper.
"General Jumper and I are continuing to review, analyze and discuss the report with a view toward taking whatever management and leadership actions we deem appropriate," Roche said in a statement Thursday.
Members of Congress were enraged in March when Roche insisted that academy leaders were not responsible for problems that existed before they were assigned there.
The school's top officers were subsequently removed and an independent Department of Defense panel was ordered by Congress to conduct a separate inquiry. That group is set to hold its first meeting Monday on Capitol Hill.
Roche is assessing whether any individuals at the academy kept crimes from being reported or failed to investigate those that were, Walker said.