After Senators from both sides of the aisle demanded that a climate of hostility toward women at the nation’s Air Force Academy be addressed, the Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to appoint an independent panel to investigate the academy’s handling of close to 60 sexual assault allegations from female cadets over the past decade. If approved by the House, a seven-member panel – made up of individuals with “knowledge or expertise in matters relating to sexual assault, rape and the United States military academies” – will begin meeting May 1 and submit a report within 90 days, the Washington Post reported. Three internal investigations are currently underway. “It is abundantly clear the secretary of the Air Force has showed himself totally incapable of handling this issue,” said Senator John McCain (R-AZ), according to the New York Times.
Earlier this week, Air Force Secretary James Roche told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Air Force officials would be open to an outside review of the issue. In addition, Roche also announced that there would be leadership changes at the Academy – after female cadets said that they had been reprimanded for reporting sexual assault to their supervisors. Women cadets quoted Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, the commandant of cadets, as forcefully insisting they face responsibility for bringing on sexual assaults, according to the Times. Senators demanded that Gilbert, who is being transferred to a job at the Pentagon, face responsibility for his actions.
Lawmakers also questioned changes proposed by Air Force officials – including housing male and female cadets in separate dormitories and training Air Force nurses and investigators to deal with sexual assault. “This is not about segregating women from men,” Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM), who graduated in the first class of women cadets at the academy in 1980, told the Times. “It’s about segregating rapists from the academy.”