By Brandon O'ConnorFebruary 27, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- There were no classes at the U.S. Military Academy Monday. Nor were there athletic events, student group meetings or any other extracurricular activities for the Corps of Cadets.
Instead, the entire corps as well as West Point's military and civilian staff, faculty and coaches spent the entire day participating in a stand-down to begin the process of changing the academy's culture as it relates to sexual assault and harassment.
"In my assessment talking to cadets and talking to leaders we have a problem. The questions is, what are we going to do about it? Today is about a call to action," Williams said during an address to the entire academy. "This is about behavior change. We can change behaviors ... We can fix this. We are better than this. I am not interested in what your ideologies are. I am interested in what your actions are, and our actions right now as a community are failing."
The stand-down was announced by West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams during his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel Feb. 13. The purpose of the stand-down was to address the culture at West Point and reverse the trend that showed an increase in instances of sexual assault and harassment from an estimated 129 in 2015-16 to 273 in 2017-18, according to the biennial Service Academy Gender Relations survey.
The day started with a character breakfast where cadets were led in facilitated discussions by senior faculty, staff and coaches about the issues facing the academy.
After breakfast, Williams addressed the entire academy, including the Corps of Cadets and staff, about taking ownership of the fact that there is a problem with sexual assault and harassment, and the need for the stand-down to be the first step in making changes to the culture at the academy as it relates to sex.
"We do not have a zero defects Army, but we have a zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment in the United States Army. This isn't about getting better. One sexual harassment or sexual assault is too many," Williams said. "I want you to come forward. If this is happening in your barracks, come forward. I guarantee our chain of command will honor you and treat you with dignity and respect ... This is a community. If you are struggling today as you hear my voice, come forward today and report. I welcome it and if you aren't getting what you need come see me."
After the address, cadets and staff were given time for personal or group reflection about the topics to prepare them for an afternoon full of breakout sessions geared toward discussing the issues and coming up with solutions of how to move forward.
"The greatest solution is repetitive education. That is the best way to change culture overall. Make sure people get it stuck in their heads that sexual assault and harassment are not OK," Class of 2019 Cadet Ejakhianaghe Obiomon said. "I thought it [the stand-down] was productive and allowed cadets to voice their opinions on how to solve this huge issue overall. The initial superintendent's meeting was a shock and made us own up to the fact that this is our problem. I like how we were able to work together to come up with potential solutions to this issue."
Cadets were divided by company for breakout sessions to talk about changes that need to be made. They were split into male and female small groups with a staff facilitator and given the opportunity to dive deeper into the issues and what West Point needs to do to move forward.
"A lot of the biggest ideas we came up with are more education about sexual assault and harassment from when you first get into the academy," Class of 2020 Cadet Taylor Krug said. "We start honor training as soon as we enter the academy during Beast Training, so to start talking about the issue earlier we thought would help a lot. We also talked about harsher punishments for convicted cases of assault and harassment as well as making clearer the definitions and what the punishments are."
Faculty, staff and coaches had their own sessions throughout the day including a legal panel where members of the Staff Judge Advocate staff discussed how reported cases of sexual assault and harassment are investigated and the options the command has to discipline, which include punishments such as felony charges or separation from the academy for guilty parties.
The panel included West Point's chief of justice, an Army criminal investigator, a special victims counsel and an Army defense attorney.
"West Point is unique in that it has the added layer of complexity that we are an academic institution," Capt. Joan Colloton, West Point Special Victims Counsel, said when asked about solutions. "We are talking about 18-24-year-olds who are also trying to figure out how to organically develop these relationships. I think it is incumbent on peers and leaders to intervene before it gets to the point of sexual harassment or sexual assault."
Following a day's worth of discussion, each cadet company is tasked with putting together a proposal of what changes should be made at the academy to address sexual assault and harassment. Williams said, "Everything is on the table," and he is having Commandant Brig. Gen. Steven W. Gilland look into all options including alcohol policies on post.
"It feels like there is a big cultural shift happening throughout this day. People have really been changing their minds," Class of 2022 Cadet Nicholas Tavassoli said. "I think it is important that we start now, this year, and set the culture. Next year, we are going to be team leaders and we are going to have new cadets coming in. What they are going to do is based off what they see the older classes doing. If we set this example now, it may take three years to change the culture, but I think our class could lead the way doing that."