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Rape hearing casts light on Naval Academy’s culture

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Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:30 am

The drinking began even before they left for the party. Seven shots of coconut rum, give or take, the female midshipman said later. Straight from the bottle.

Invites to the “toga and yoga” party at the illicit off-campus football house had been hard to come by. But more than 100 young people — many of them athletes at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. — still crammed themselves into every corner of the split-level they nicknamed “the Black Pineapple.” In the yard, a princess-themed moon bounce house eventually busted under the weight of the midshipmen jumping on it.

More than a year later, the details of that night in April 2012 were conjured again and again in a hearing room at the Washington Navy Yard, where prosecutors attempted to prove that three former Navy football players sexually assaulted a female midshipman at the party.

The hearing, which concluded Tuesday, will determine whether the case goes to a court-martial. Its outcome is still weeks away, but the testimony provided a sometimes unflattering glimpse into the culture of the Naval Academy, one of the country’s storied training grounds for military leaders.

The 11 midshipmen who took the witness stand described a world of binge drinking, casual sex, social-media harassment and lying — behaviors that can be found on any other college campus. But for some academy alumni, it was a disturbing portrait of an institution that imposes strict rules on aspiring young officers whose educations are funded by U.S. taxpayers.

“One cannot cast these behaviors aside and say, ‘They’re just college students,’” one self-described academy graduate commented online on a Washington Post story about the hearing. “Midshipmen are first and foremost leaders in training who are necessarily held to a higher standard. Would you want any of them as your son’s or daughter’s division officer aboard a ship? I think not.”

Pressure part of problem?

Sharon Hanley Disher, who was among the first women admitted to Annapolis and whose twin children graduated from the academy in 2010, said she found the case “sad and disappointing.”

Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, said the school’s mission is “to train and educate midshipmen to set an example and to lead the navy and marine corps. The overwhelming majority of our midshipmen are setting an example and doing the right thing.”

Still, the transgressions exposed at the hearing have some people questioning whether the pressures and constraints placed on midshipmen are part of the problem.

“There are a lot of needless restrictions,” said Bruce Fleming, an English professor who has taught at the academy for 27 years. As a result, “there is a ‘get back at the man’ mentality.”

A 2006 study of alcohol abuse at the Naval Academy found that a higher proportion of midshipman interviewed reported binge drinking in the previous six months than students at civilian colleges did over the course of a year. The participants blamed the limited opportunities to let loose, according to the study, which Lt. Cmdr. Lydia Doye, a Naval Academy graduate and former intervention liaison for sexual-assault victims, conducted for her graduate-school thesis. This fueled a need to “make up for lost time,” the study said, and tended to “feed more intense drinking.”

The academy has been battling binge drinking for years, and officials said they have made progress. The number of midshipmen disciplined for alcohol-related incidents fell by 70 percent between 2010 and 2013, Schofield said.

Prohibitions

Prohibitions against drinking extend to all freshmen, including those who are 21. Midshipmen cannot have alcohol in their dormitory, Bancroft Hall. The purpose of the rules is to mimic the conditions graduates will face once they are commissioned and deployed, academy officials said.

Midshipmen are policed as soon as they choose to attend. They are given a drug and alcohol test upon their induction, Schofield said. Any candidate with a blood alcohol count of .05 percent or above is sent for a medical evaluation. Anyone who tests positive for drugs is kicked out.

Since 2010, midshipmen have been subject to random breath tests. They also get an earful from an alcohol and drug education officer before and after summer leave, and before spring break.

Once a month, midshipmen turning 21 take part in “Responsible Use ‘21st Birthday’ Dinner Training,” where they get up to two alcoholic drinks with dinner in a banquet room at the academy, learn how to compute their blood alcohol content and get a breath test.

The consequences for getting caught drunk or sneaking in a six-pack are demerits or, depending on the circumstances, expulsion.

Sex is also highly restricted. Male and female midshipmen have to keep the door open when they are in the same room in Bancroft Hall. And no sexual contact is allowed on the academy grounds. “That includes everything from hand-holding to the wildest orgies,” Fleming said.

Evade rules

To evade the rules, athletes on a number of teams pool their money and rent off-campus houses, where they can drink and have sex. Before it was shut down by academy officials, the Black Pineapple served as a retreat for the football players and their friends. Team members were renting the house on Witmer Court in Rolling Hills for $2,200 a month, according to an online ad posted about a year ago.

Fleming has argued for years that the unforgiving environment on campus leads to unintended consequences and that banning consensual sex undermines sexual-assault prevention efforts. Twenty percent of midshipmen are women.

“We can’t teach them about sexual assault when everything is tarred with the same moral brush,” he said.

Sexual-assault reports at the academy went down by nine to 15 during the 2011-2012 academic year, the latest Defense Department data show.

Disher and others do not see the strict rules or high standards as excuses for alcohol abuse or bad judgment. The midshipmen “know they are under extra pressure,” Disher said, “and consequently they should act more appropriately.”

Even so, midshipmen are keenly aware that many of their friends who go to ordinary colleges have sex and go to parties with little fear of administrative reprisals. “It’s a strange little world,” Fleming said.

The fear of being disciplined or kicked out of the academy has created an unspoken agreement among midshipmen that they will protect each other, the 2006 study found. Snitching is considered among the worst things that a midshipman can do.

“The small number of midshipmen who have turned in their shipmates have been shunned by their classmates, whether or not the complaint was valid,” the study said. “The consequences of turning someone in are much greater than just ‘letting it go.’”

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