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Air Force Secretary Rejects Outside Probe of Academy

The widening sexual misconduct scandal is best handled internally, Roche says. He sees many more assault cases going unreported.

March 12, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary James Roche on Tuesday rejected calls to open his probe of sexual misconduct at the Air Force Academy to outside investigators, saying the problem was best handled internally.

"My Harvard Business School training is you don't turn to outsiders. You study something yourself, you master it yourself so that you know what you're talking about and you can lead," he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He said he is consulting with senior female Air Force officers, many of them graduates of the academy, on improving conditions for women at the school.

"If we can handle safety safely, if we can handle war, if we can handle so many other things, why is it someone believes that our women officers are nudniks and cannot be spectacularly successful in helping us to deal with this?" Roche asked. "I have great faith in them."

To date, an ongoing Air Force investigation has turned up 56 cases of alleged rape and sexual assault at the academy, the Air Force's premier officer training school, over 10 years. Roche has said he believes that many more cases have gone unreported.

The widening scandal has thrown the academy into turmoil and put Roche and other senior Air Force leaders on the defensive, amid fears that the scandal may turn out to be a bigger setback for the military than the Tailhook sex debacle, which shook the Navy in the early 1990s.

In the interview, Roche said for the first time that a number of cases involve allegations that cadets had assaulted civilian women. In one case within the last few years, he said, police accused a cadet of sexually assaulting a woman he met while on leave. Instead of prosecuting, Roche said, the district attorney turned the case over to the academy and the cadet served time in a military jail.

As investigators continue to pore over files and question cadets, counselors and teachers at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and staff at a nearby rape crisis center, Roche said he has already drawn up a list of changes he wants made.

He said he was so infuriated when first told of the allegations that he proposed closing the school; he then considered requiring the installation of alarms in the rooms of every female cadet. Eventually, he said, he rejected both proposals.

His prescriptions for reducing the likelihood of sexual assaults in the future include improving the quality of the faculty, which he said has been allowed to slide; increasing the number of top Air Force pilots who teach at the school, to provide stronger role models for the students; and clustering female students in rooms with immediate access to their own bathroom and shower facilities, "so the women could enjoy companionship and so they would be closer to the bathing facilities that they would use."

Roche said he also would recommend that the academy institute a rule requiring that doors be kept wide open when men and women are in a dorm room together and that it enforce more strictly the rules prohibiting the use of alcohol by cadets.

And he said he is seeking guidance on improving the school's handling of sexual assault allegations. A decade ago, in the midst of a similar scandal, the school set up a cadet-run hotline for reporting sexual misconduct. But that reporting system lay outside the academy's chain of command, Roche said, permitting authorities to ignore or downplay allegations, while cadets who reported misconduct were often ostracized by their peers.

Despite the widespread problems at the school, senior officials at the academy will not lose their jobs because of the allegations, Roche said. Lt. Gen. John R. Dallager, the academy's superintendent, had previously announced plans to retire this summer, he added.

"It would be too bloody easy to fire a bunch of officers and then go back to Washington and say, 'Everything's fine,' " Roche said. "We're not going to do that. We're going to fix this place."

Experts on sexual assault in the military say that to really "fix" the academy, the Air Force should bring in outside interviewers to encourage victims to come forward.

"If the Air Force leadership truly wants a complete picture of what went wrong, they will welcome outside, independent consultants to assist them with interviewing victims and with the investigation," said Terri Spahr Nelson, a former Army psychotherapist who wrote "For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military," published last year. "Victims will be more willing to come forward if they know that the interviewer is not representing the Air Force and that the interviewer would be fair and impartial."

But Roche dismissed that idea Tuesday. He said Air Force investigators were doing enough by interviewing the academy's own staff counselors and seeking advice from a local rape crisis center contacted by some of the cadets.

In addition, Roche said he and the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, plan to meet Friday, after talking with the investigative team about its most recent findings. Roche and Jumper also will confer with a group of five female and two male officers to solicit their opinions on the scandal.

"What I don't want to do is to turn an Air Force Academy issue over to another group that knows very little about how to deal with it, [because] they would miss the context in which all this occurs," Roche said.

By the end of March, Roche said, "we hope to have an 80% solution" to the problems at the school. Roche said he was moving as rapidly as possible to assure the parents of the 218 new female cadets who are planning to enter the school in June that "Mom and Dad, have no fear for the safety of your daughter."

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