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    Nowhere to Hide: Senate Moves to Protect Sex Abuse Victims in Pentagon Schools

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    Susan Roeder, the wife of a US military employee, spent almost five years fighting for greater protections for child victims of sexual harassment in Department of Defense (DoD) schools after an incident involving her daughter - and the Senate is finally taking action.

    On June 19, the US Senate passed its version of the 2019 Defense Authorization Act. Secreted in its depths was a small yet revolutionary amendment requiring Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) officials to establish policies and procedures to protect students who fall victim to sexual harassment, by March 31 2019.

    "The committee believes DoDEA policies and procedures for response to sexual harassment cases fail to respect the rights of victims and lead to inadequate and insufficient responses to complaints of sexual harassment in its schools," the proposal's accompanying explanation read.

    Senators also included a provision in their version of the defense authorization bill that requires the DoD Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive assessment of DoD's and DoDEA's policies and procedures regarding misconduct, including sexual misconduct.

    An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter stands in front of a Galaxy C-5 transport plane at the US Air Base in Ramstein, western Germany, February 22, 2017.
    © AFP 2019 / MARTIN GOLDHAHN / DPA
    An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter stands in front of a Galaxy C-5 transport plane at the US Air Base in Ramstein, western Germany, February 22, 2017.
    While similar provisions are not currently in Congress' version, it will be addressed with other deviations during the conference process. In all, there are 165 DoDEA schools worldwide, teaching around 71,000 students.

    Roeder played a pivotal role in securing the obligation — speaking to Military Times, she said while her daughter had been out of the DoD school system for three years, shed' "invested too much to let it go," and would have continued her crusade "no matter how long it took."

    No Playground

    Roeder's campaign was kickstarted when her daughter Gretchen suffered sexual harassment at Vilseck High School, a little-known DoDEA educational facility in Germany. In 2013, one of Gretchen's classmates urinated into a bottle while seated near her during class — later, as they exited, he asked her, "did you see it that time?" — a reference to his penis.

    Sexual Assaults in the Military Hearing
    US Senate Armed Services Committee
    Sexual Assaults in the Military Hearing

    Eighteen months later, Roeder discovered the school's principal had classified the incident as misconduct, not sexual harassment, which meant there was no record of it ever happening. As a result, the DoDEA's record would "stay clean" — and while the perpetrator was later returned to the US along with his family, there was no disciplinary hearing.

    Subsequently, Roeder doggedly pursued the issue with DoDEA and DoD officials, demanding they establish clear policies regarding sexual harassment of students in DoDEA facilities the world over.

    In particular, Roeder raised concerns about how sexual harassment complaints are investigated, how parents can appeal DoDEA decisions, and how victims are or aren't informed of punishments. She found there was no structure in place to help victims, or for rehabilitation of offenders to prevent them from persisting in such behavior.

    Moreover, Roeder contended the DoDEA failed to follow US federal laws covering public schools' responsibilities in addressing student discrimination, denied its students rights other public school students have under Title IX, which states categiorizes sexual harassment or sexual violence as sexual discrimination. This failure comes despite a 2000 Presidential Executive Order mandating the law applies to DoDEA schools.

    Unspoken Scandal

    Susan and Gretchen met Senate staffers in March 2018 to discuss their experiences, and the inadequacy of DoDEA sexual abuse provisions — attendees were evidently highly receptive, given the speed with which supportive amendments were weaved into pending legislation.

    However, it may not be coincidental the visit came not long after Associated Press (AP) published a series of articles documenting the issue of child-on-child sexual assault in US military bases and schools, and the failure of authorities to appropriately deal with such cases.

    US Air Force F-16 fighter jets wait to take off from a runway during a military exercise at the Osan US Air Base in Osan, South Korea
    © AP Photo / Ahn Young-joon
    U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets wait to take off from a runway during a military exercise at the Osan U.S. Air Base in Osan, South Korea
    The first reported that there'd been over 600 sexual assault cases involving children and teens at DoDEA schools over the course of a decade. For instance, in 2015 six girls were sexually assaulted by a single boy in a first-grade class at a US military base school in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Despite the school's principal being fully aware of the pupil's reprehensible proclivities, and the victims' parents reporting the abuses to Army police, and on-site military child-abuse authorities and sex-assault specialists, no action was taken, and the abuse continued unabated.

    Similarly, at a base elementary school in Naples, Italy, several families complained in 2009 and 2010 administrators responded too slowly to allegations classmates were sexually assaulting their daughters. One father accused Pentagon school officials of acting like wasn't "a big deal." The cases surfaced after a lawsuit was filed by a school counselor who was fired after he discussed the incidents with a military reporter. He told AP school officials didn't want to hear about the assaults — "there was silence…no action…they were scared to deal with it."

    AP suggested the key reason complainants invariably find themselves enmeshed in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic quagmire is military law doesn't apply to civilians, and the US federal legal system isn't equipped or inclined to prosecute on-base juveniles. Pentagon rules and support systems combating sexual violence among service members are extensive, and its school system has a 13-page framework for investigating adult attacks on students. However, guidance covering student-on-student assaults runs to a mere three paragraphs, which only vaguely prohibits sexual harassment and "physical conduct of a sexual nature."

    The next article revealed Army's Criminal Investigation Command had under-reported the number of investigations its agents had conducted, with bases in Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Korea and Germany all claiming there were zero reported sexual assault incidents, while in reality all were home to ongoing investigations of that ilk.

    In a 10-year period; at least 12 cases were reported at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, with investigators concluding 11 were true; at least six were reported at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, with  investigators concluding all were true; at least four at Fort Polk, Louisiana, with investigators finding three were true; at least six at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with investigators finding five were true. In all, investigators concluded allegations were true in 83 percent of cases across all bases — although as of June 2018, the DoD is yet to disclose the number of pending sexual assault investigations it has on the books relating to children on base.

    Related:

    Me Too, Sir: Reports of Sexual Assaults in US Military Spiked in 2017
    Over 6,000 in 2016: Pentagon Releases Sexual Assault Data by Military Base
    Almost 1,000 Canadian Military Members Reported a Sexual Assault Last Year
    Dishonorable Conduct: Sexual Harassment in German Bundeswehr Climbing
    Tags:
    military abuse, child sexual abuse, military bases, sexual abuse, US Department of Defense (DoD), Pentagon, Italy, Germany, United States, South Korea
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