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Mikulski pushes for panel on service academy heads

ANNAPOLIS — A new commission to focus on how well superintendents of the nation’s military service academies address the problem of sexual assault would be created under the defense department’s appropriations measure, which has cleared a Senate committee, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski said Monday.

Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Commission on the Selection, Retention and Quality of Service Academy Superintendents has been included in the bill. The senator noted she has been hearing about the military’s zero tolerance for sexual assault for 25 years, but it has persisted, hampered by inconsistent policies for prevention and response to reports.

“The message stays the same but the problem keeps getting worse,” Mikulski said in a statement. “Service academies should be a point of prevention in stopping illegal and unethical behavior. Cadets and midshipmen are watching how their leaders handle these crimes. If we are going to end sexual assault in the military, we need to start by ending it at the institutions that train our future leaders.”

For the past 25 years, the Maryland Democrat has been a member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors, which functions the way a board of trustees does at a civilian university. She noted that the idea of creating the accountability commission comes in the same week that the Naval Academy announced that three midshipmen had been charged with sexually assaulting a female student at an off-campus house in Annapolis — more than a year earlier in April 2012. The students had been on the academy’s football team.

“The education of the midshipmen will shape the culture of the military for years to come,” Mikulski wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in June. “That is why I am concerned about the leadership that trains the leadership and am deeply troubled by the lackluster response from the superintendents to increasing rates of sexual assault within their academies.”

The case has brought renewed focus to how well the nation’s military academies handle reports of sexual assaults and cases in the military also have drawn the attention of Congress, the Pentagon and the White House this year.

President Barack Obama addressed the sexual assault problem when he spoke at the academy’s commissioning ceremony in May.

The commission outlined in the legislation would include three active or retired military personnel, including at least one retired service academy superintendent and three civilians, including at least one active or former university president. The panel would explore topics such as the criteria for evaluating a superintendent, the role of diversity in selecting a superintendent and the ability of superintendents to adapt and respond to changes in the military.