By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sexual assaults reported by students at the three U.S. military academies jumped 23 percent in 2012, underscoring what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said was a "persistent" problem that required a "strong and immediate response" from the services.
Eighty cases of sexual assault were reported by cadets and midshipmen during the 2011-2012 academic year, compared to 65 the previous year, the Pentagon said on Friday in its annual report on sexual harassment and violence at the academies. The victims were primarily women, although four were men.
It was the third straight year of increases, from a low of 25 in 2009. Prior to that, reported sexual assault cases had fallen regularly from 42 in 2006, when the Pentagon first began tracking the issue at the direction of Congress, the report said.
"Despite our considerable and ongoing efforts, this year's annual report ... demonstrates that we have a persistent problem," Panetta said in a memorandum to the secretaries of the Navy, Army and Air Force.
He said the lack of progress at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, merited "a strong and immediate response."
Panetta and he asked the services to identify "new ways to advance a climate of dignity and respect" at the academies and report back to him by the end of March.
The findings drew expressions of concern from lawmakers and special interest groups that track the issue. Representative Niki Tsongas said that while the rise could partly be attributed to improved conditions that encourage people to report assaults, they also showed the issue remains a problem.
"Sexual assault remains a persistent and untenable crime throughout the armed forces," she said in a statement. "These numbers are an affront to the educational institutions that are developing our military's future leaders."
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said the report "shines a light on the severity and scope of the crisis" of sexual assault in the military.
"There is a culture of high tolerance for rape and sexual predators in the ranks that pervades the military," she said. "Clearly all the reforms that have been announced over many years aren't making a difference."
The academies are implementing programs to try to reduce sexual assaults. At the same time, they are attempting to create an environment that encourages reporting, whether on a confidential basis that enables victims to get care and counseling or an unrestricted basis that also permits full criminal investigation.
Of the 80 cases reported in 2012, 42 were unrestricted, allowing authorities to pursue a criminal investigation with the assistance of the victim. Thirty-eight cases remained confidential and were not investigated, officials said.
The academies investigated 40 sexual assault cases in 2012, 23 from 2012 and 17 from the previous year. Of that number, 11 were prosecuted and punished, including eight suspects who were court martialed. The others were not prosecuted, either because the military lacked jurisdiction or evidence, officials said.
The Pentagon surveys students every two years to assess gender relations at the schools and to get a better idea about the number of sexual assaults that go unreported.
The survey conducted as part of this year's report found that 12.4 percent of women and 2 percent of men had reported unwanted sexual contact during the previous 12 months - statistically unchanged from the prior survey.
Fifty-one percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment during the previous year, down from 56 percent in the 2010 survey. Ten percent of men reported experiencing sexual harassment, statistically unchanged from the earlier survey.
Unwanted sexual contact ranged from rape or sexual assault, to attempted attacks, forcible sodomy and other types of sexual contact, officials said. Major General Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said there was an important correlation between sexual assault and sexual harassment.
"Eliminating sexual harassment is critical to preventing sexual assault," he said, adding that those who experience sexual assault in the past year had also been sexually harassed.
"The solution to this problem is ... creating a nonpermissive environment where sexual harassment, sexist behavior, stalking and these types of behaviors are not condoned," Patton said.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Will Dunham and Sandra Maler)