No bystanders – Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit

WASHINGTON — More than 150 Coast Guard men and women attending the Coast Guard’s inaugural Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit, Monday, Sept. 17, 2013, at Andrews, Air Force Base, Md.  The two-day summit’s purpose is reflected in its them of, “One team, One Fight – Empowering People, Building Trust, Changing Culture.”  The agenda of the summit is designed to address specific findings of focus groups recently completed by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.  Those focus groups revealed that many personnel don’t believe sexual assault is a problem in the Coast Guard, that personnel often have difficulty understanding the full and legal definition of sexual assault, and that junior personnel don’t fully trust the chain of command when it comes to reporting sexual assault.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

More than 150 Coast Guard men and women attending the Coast Guard’s inaugural Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Written by Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, Public Affairs Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

Day two of the Coast Guard’s first Sexual Assault Prevention and Response began with the same intensity as day one. The 153 participants turned their attention to the day’s agenda that included training on bystander intervention, a question and answer session with the Coast Guard’s vice commandant and breakout group discussions.

Jeffrey O’Brien, director of Mentors in Violence Prevention National Program, delivered a presentation entitled “Understanding Bystander Intervention” discussing topics such as pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility. O’Brien informed summit participants about bystander behaviors, the stages of bystander intervention, obstacles that prevent bystanders from taking action and how summit participants can help improve training and sexual assault prevention strategies.

WASHINGTON — Coast Guard Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier addresses participants of the service’s inaugural Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.  Currier emphasized the need for systematic change within the service to eliminate sexual assault in the Coast Guard.  Currier’s remarks touched upon a variety of related issues including training at accession points, administration of military justice, and the damage sexual assault does to Coast Guard people and units.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Cmdr. Christopher T. O’Neil.

Coast Guard Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier addresses participants of the service’s inaugural Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit. Currier emphasized the need for systematic change within the service to eliminate sexual assault in the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Cmdr. Christopher T. O’Neil.

Coast Guard Vice Commandant Vice Adm. John Currier addressed the group, reinforcing the message of senior leadership’s direct involvement in, and support for, the sexual assault prevention and response program noting the summit itself if a symbol of that commitment. Currier focused on the traditions and cultures of the service, both the good and the bad. He said the service needs to examine its culture as it relates to alcohol use and abuse, and, as it relates to the identification and eradication of predatory behavior.

The service’s second-in-command also spoke of the need for trust to be built from the bottom to the top of the organization, noting that ensigns and non-rates need to be mentored as they join the fleet, so they become the leaders we need them to be.

Seaman Alexandra Barone, attending the summit from San Diego where she is assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, said Currier’s remarks about cultural norms and organizational traditions, and the idea that maintaining organizational traditions doesn’t necessarily mean maintaining cultural norms, are a good thing.

“I think it’s important to maintain traditions while changing cultural norms and for people to rethink things and evaluate how we talk to and treat each other,” said Barone. “I came not knowing what to expect, I have a degree in women’s studies so I was interested to see how things would be approached. I didn’t expect the summit to have the discussions about reframing norms, cultural change, behavior and language, or how there can be a disconnect between training and what actually happens.”

Barone added the summit reinforced the issue of sexual assault as an everyday issue, that it’s a lot deeper than just a 25-minute discussion.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp, in a video message to summit attendees, said the Coast Guard has held a number of focus groups across the service and those focus groups have produced three dominant themes. First, many Coast Guard personnel, both senior and junior, do not think sexual assault is a problem in the Coast Guard. Second, many shipmates have difficulty understanding the definition of sexual assault. And third, our junior Coast Guardsmen don’t fully trust in the chain of command when it comes to sexual assault. The Commandant said leadership, discipline, trust, and clear policy and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assault are key components to restoring full faith in the chain of command.

While many of the summit’s attendees had more years in service than those who were typically selected to participate in the focus groups, their breakout discussions yielded similar sentiments. The 153 participants were divided into three groups, men in paygrades E-6 or O-4 and below, men in paygrades E-7 or O-5 and above, and a third group comprised of all the women attending the summit.

In their report-outs to the group at large, the breakout groups said:

• There needs to be greater accountability, both in terms of holding perpetrators accountable and for holding commands accountable for climate, ensuring leaders step in and take action when inappropriate or predatory behavior is first noted.
• More support for victims is needed, more victim advocates are needed and more resources are required for education and mentoring.
• Better training and communication is needed, specifically online training needs to be replaced with face-to-face discussions allowing for deeper examination of issues, facilitating better understanding and resulting in task-based results versus knowledge-based results.
• Awareness remains an issue; personnel need to understand there is in fact a serious problem with sexual assaults in the service.
• The service needs to examine its culture as it relates to junior personnel, the stereotypes associated with the most junior (newest) members of the service contributes to poor command climate and predatory behavior.
• Transparency. The groups agreed there needs to be more discussion of what the service is doing about sexual assault, about the military justice system’s handling of sexual assault cases and more discussion within the service of the outcomes of sexual assault cases. There also needs to be a better balance between releasing information about cases and protecting privacy, the overly conservative approach results in a disparity in perceptions from the deckplate/field level and the Judge Advocate General/headquarters level.
• Changing perspective. The service needs to think about sexual assault issues from the perspective of victims and survivors and better address their needs and concerns.
• The number one preventative measure is solid leadership at the deckplate level, requiring leaders to get out of their spaces and walk the decks and really get to know their personnel. In doing so, they will be much more likely to spot inappropriate or predatory behavior and be able to take swift action.
• Leaders need to become smarter about using all of the administrative tools at their disposal including separation from service, remembering that no one is entitled to wear this uniform, it is earned, and predators aren’t earning it.
• The service needs to examine whether sexual assault is really a zero tolerance event such as cocaine use and wouldn’t adoption of such a clear cut policy send a better accountability message than the service’s current position?

Deputy Commandant for Mission Support Vice Adm. Manson Brown, chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention Council, provided the summit’s closing remarks and started with what he said is the central question, what are our beliefs that we are operating on in this campaign?

“I believe we can eradicate sexual assault from our ranks and I reject the notion that it is the cost of doing business,” said Brown. “We have to believe we can eradicate this problem from our ranks. It has to be the core belief of this campaign. We as leaders, at all levels, need to realize there is a higher expectation for us than for those in the rest of society.”

Brown closed with a call to action for summit attendees. “I want you to get passionate about this issue, ask your [commanding officer] for opportunities to discuss at all hands what you’ve learned here,” he said.

Brown noted that due to fiscal realities this is likely to be the only summit this year and he challenged attendees to keep the conversation started here going in the field.

“Bottom line: Make sure you do something, make an impact with this important information,” Brown said.

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