NEW LONDON -- In four years at the Coast Guard Academy, seven classmates have come to Tahnee Zaccano to report that they had been sexually assaulted, and about 30 more complained of being sexually harassed.
As co-president of Cadets Against Sexual Assault, Zaccano, a first-class cadet, is trained to take confidential reports from her peers and help them get treatment and counseling.
Zaccano's experience mirrors the findings in the academy's 2013 report to Congress on sexual harassment and violence during the 2011-12 school year, and a Department of Defense student survey on gender relations.
The report and survey show little improvement over previous years -- many of the figures increased slightly or stayed the same. While few cadets had reported incidents to academy officials, nearly 10 percent of the women surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact. Forty percent of women and 10 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed.
The academy, like the rest of the military, has struggled to deal with these problems. Now, its leaders are taking a new approach.
Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the academy's superintendent, hired a new full-time sexual assault response coordinator who previously had worked with the Marine Corps to combat such crimes. Training on the topic is being revamped so cadets will know better how to protect themselves and how to help others in dangerous situations.
And the academy is depending on cadets like Zaccano to help their peers and to set an example in the fleet once they graduate.
Stosz wants more to join the 30 members of Cadets Against Sexual Assault. The academy can change the culture in the Coast Guard by graduating leaders who will not tolerate sexual assault and harassment, she said.
"We need to make that part of our mission," Stosz said. "We're developing leaders of character, so why not develop leaders who will say no and not tolerate this behavior?"
Across the Coast Guard, the number of reported sexual assaults increased from 70 in 2009 to 80 in 2010, 88 in 2011 and 156 in 2012.
Before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday on sexual assaults in the military, the Coast Guard's judge advocate general testified about efforts to reverse the trend. A new prevention council, with senior admirals and experts as members, is implementing the recommendations of a task force that recently studied the problems for more than a year. One of the main findings was that the Coast Guard needs more victim advocates to cover its widely dispersed population.
The Defense Department may change the military's criminal code as part of its review of the way sexual assaults are investigated, prosecuted and adjudicated.
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, said he rejects the assertion of some experts that sexual assault is an unavoidable element of military culture.
"Not in my Coast Guard," he said in his recent State of the Coast Guard Address.
Changes to training
Shannon Norenberg, the academy's new sexual assault response coordinator, arrived on campus in February. Norenberg, who worked in that same capacity at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, will lead the training on the topic and ensure that services are available for victims.
Norenberg and Stosz agree that the academy's training needs to change. In the survey, less than 20 percent of cadets rated the current training as "very effective" in reducing or preventing sexual assault and harassment. About 40 percent said it was moderately effective.
Instead of repeatedly telling cadets what not to do, Norenberg plans to tell the cadets what they should do to protect themselves and to help someone who is in a risky situation.
"One of the biggest problems," Stosz said, "is that people see a situation developing and they walk away."
Cadets Against Sexual Assault was formed at the academy in 2005. Today, each class is represented so that a freshman cadet, for instance, can go to a fellow freshman, Zaccano said.
Talking to a CASA cadet does not trigger an investigation, where talking to an academy official would.
"There's a lot of shame associated with sexual harassment and assault," Zaccano said. "Some people just don't want to talk about it, so they come to a peer, and they feel like it's judgment-free.
"Even though it's judgment-free with the command, when it's a peer, it's different. We project to them a very open, calm environment. We're trying to empower them and give them back the control that was taken from them with this crime."
Zaccano wants to attend the Coast Guard's victim advocate training so she can work with victims after she graduates. Sometimes victims come to her about incidents that happened months or years before. All of the cadets she has helped were sexually assaulted before they enrolled at the academy.
Stosz said she thinks the academy is a "very safe environment," so she was surprised that 9.8 percent of the female cadets surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact.
This was an increase from 7.8 percent in 2010 and 5.6 percent in 2008. Unwanted sexual contact includes a range of behaviors, from sexual touching to rape. More than half of these women said alcohol and/or drugs were involved. Less than 1 percent of men answered yes to this question.
Students at all of the service academies took the survey in the spring of 2012. At the Coast Guard Academy, 307 women and 697 men were surveyed, and 80 percent of cadets completed the questionnaire. Stosz said she wished the survey provided more context, particularly whether the contact had happened once or multiple times.
"At a time when they're exploring their identity, it's somewhat natural to have people experiment with what it takes to attract a person of the opposite sex," Stosz said. "If, one time, a guy or gal is clumsy or stupid and tries to touch someone and they're repulsed, they learn. Someone who goes around and keeps trying many times, that's a different kind of behavior than someone who is awkward and experimenting."
Seven instances of sexual offenses, some of which did not occur at the academy, were investigated during the 2011-12 school year. A male student in the academy's preparatory school program at the Marion Military Institute in Alabama made unwanted advances toward three female students at the school and was dismissed from the program. A freshman male cadet was dismissed for similar behavior toward a freshman female cadet.
In the remaining five cases, there either was not enough evidence or the victim could not be identified, according to the report. The academy monitors online blogs about sexual assault and investigates when someone writes that they were assaulted or they heard about an assault at the academy. Three of the cases stemmed from anonymous blog posts.
In the 2010-11 school year, three instances of sexual offenses were reported to academy officials, a decrease from four the prior year.
Through the training, Stosz said, the academy is looking to "attack" the behaviors that lead up to sexual assault, particularly underage drinking, and create an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward to get the help they need. Focusing on respect in the training should help reduce the instances of sexual harassment, she added.
The academy has been trying to attract students with diverse backgrounds from across the country, and sometimes they have different preconceived notions about gender, Stosz said. Some have said things they shouldn't out of ignorance or insensitivity, such as "you're a girl, you can't do that," and not with the intention of hurting others, she said.
"I'm not seeing these really aggressive, premeditated sexual harassment behaviors," Stosz said. "I'm seeing young people saying stupid, hurtful things, sometimes that were acceptable at home but aren't acceptable here, and off-color jokes."
But the bottom line is there's no excuse for 40 percent of women in three consecutive surveys to say they had been sexually harassed, Stosz said.
Three-quarters of the women in the 2012, 2010 and 2008 surveys said they had experienced crude or offensive behavior. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of men in the three surveys said they had been harassed, and roughly half said they had experienced crude or offensive behavior.
Stosz said this past year has not been "a huge game-changer" for the academy. Next year, she said, she hopes to have positive news to report.
"I know it might appear that we have a long way to go in the military, but everybody really wants to do the right thing," Norenberg said. "... I'm pretty confident we can make a culture change."