Military Academies Witness Rise In Reported Sexual Assaults, Study Finds (VIDEO)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- The number of reported sexual assaults at the nation's three major military academies rose overall in the latest academic year from one year earlier, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pentagon.

The Defense Department's "Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies" for academic year 2010-2011 found there were 65 reports of sexual assault involving cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. That was up from 41 reports of sexual assaults in the prior academic year.

"This is a leadership issue, first and foremost, so I also expect us to lead with integrity and with energy to eliminate sexual assault and harassment from our culture," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement. "I'm confident the steps we are taking are the right ones, but we must continue to improve."

The Pentagon said it could not conclusively identify the reasons for the increases. However, the department has worked to encourage more victims to report sexual assault and the Pentagon says that could explain the higher number of reports.

The annual report was mandated in the 2007 John Warner National Defense Authorization Act. It directed the Pentagon to evaluate the effectiveness of the sexual harassment and sexual violence related policies on an annual basis.

Aiming to eliminate sexual assault and harassment from military culture, the Pentagon also announced two new policies to support abuse victims as it released the findings Tuesday.

Service members who have been the victim of sexual assault and have filed an unrestricted report now have the option to request an expedited transfer from their unit or installation, the Defense Department said. Under the new policy, the service member must receive a response to the transfer from the unit commander within 72 hours. A service member also will be able to request a review of any denied request and receive that response within 72 hours, the Pentagon added.

Another new policy will standardize retention periods for sexual assault records across the military services. Specified documents will be retained for 50 years in unrestricted cases and for five years in restricted cases to give victims longer access to documents related to sexual assault, the Defense Department said.

While the report found that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is in partial compliance with the department's policies regarding sexual harassment and assault, it concluded the academy was not in compliance with department policy for providing prevention and response training to all cadets.

The Service Women's Action Network, a national human rights organization founded by women veterans, was critical of the increase in sexual abuse reports. Greg Jacob, policy director for the organization, also underscored the noncompliance with Pentagon policy in the report.

"Ending the widespread issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military starts by ending it at the service academies," Jacob said in a statement.

West Point did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Other academy officials said they believe the increase in reporting indicates a positive step in making cadets and midshipmen feel more comfortable about reporting incidents – a crucial part of addressing the problem.

"We believe that there's much more trust in our system than maybe we've seen in years past," said Col. Reni Renner, vice commandant culture and climate at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Deborah Goode, a spokeswoman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said the school includes training for midshipmen throughout all four years to prevent harassment and encourage reporting.

"We believe there is a better understanding by midshipmen of what constitutes sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as an increased willingness to report incidents, which may account for increased reports of sexual assault cases," Goode said.

The Air Force Academy had 33 reports in the latest academic year, an increase from 20 in the previous year. However, Renner noted that five of this year's reporters were for incidents that occurred prior to military service. The Naval Academy had 22 reported incidents, compared to 11. West Point reported the same number in both years, 10 in each year.