Watchdog finds ‘gaps’ in DON sexual misconduct policies

by Vern Evans

The Department of the Navy’s policies surrounding sexual harassment and assault don’t require thorough enough documentation or training for officials overseeing such cases, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report.

The report comes as the service has unveiled several key changes regarding sexual harassment and assault policy — such as launching a confidential reporting option in February for those experiencing sexual harassment.

Still, the inspector general report released last month found some areas for improvement in Navy policy to ensure that fewer cases fall through the cracks.

“The report identified gaps in policy that can weaken program execution and oversight,” Department of Defense Inspector General Robert Storch said in a statement. “Sexual harassment undermines the dignity and well-being of individuals and hinders productivity and morale.”

Specifically, the report found:

  • The Navy and Marine Corps don’t require commanders to submit documentation regarding the rationale for dismissing, downgrading or completely withdrawing complaints. For example, the report found that policies are not in place to require Navy and Marine Corps commanders to provide documentation confirming they consulted with legal advisors and the Navy’s Harassment Prevention and Military Equal Opportunity Program prior to dismissing complaints
  • The Navy and the Marine Corps don’t require that commanders investigate all “egregious sexual harassment complaints to ensure that offenders are processed for administrative separation if allegations are substantiated”
  • The Navy and the Marine Corps do not require investigation-related training when selecting designated officials to become the investigating officer of a formal complaint

The report offers several recommendations to rectify these shortcomings, including that the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations formalizing the complaint withdrawal process to ensure that documentation is in place if a sailor voluntarily removes a complaint and is “free from improper influence by command leadership or other entities.”

The CNO’s office noted in their response to the watchdog that updates are ongoing that may completely remove a commander from the sexual harassment complaint dismissal process. Therefore, any changes to this are on hold until that potential policy is finalized.

The report also advised the Director of the Pentagon’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to clarify its policy on whether military service commanders with complaint authority have the ability to change a formal sexual assault complaint to an informal complaint.

It also advises that the Navy and Marine Corps institute polices to ensure that the next higher-level commander in the complainants’ chain of command is the one to resolve formal sexual harassment complaints.

The 2021 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Military Members found that service members in the Department of the Navy faced sexual harassment at higher rates than those in other services.

For example, the report determined 34 percent of women and nearly nine percent of men in the Navy reported experiencing sexual harassment. Likewise, 40 percent of women and five percent of men in the Marine Corps also reported being subjected to sexual harassment, according to the study.

That’s above the 28 percent of women and seven percent of men in the Army, and 21 percent of women and five percent of men in the Air Force, that reported sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, the Navy has initiated several changes in how it addresses sexual misconduct in recent years. For example, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced in June 2023 that sailors, Marines and midshipmen subjected to sexual harassment would gain access to resources available to sexual assault victims.

That means they now receive crisis intervention, safety assessments, counseling resources and victim advocacy support, and may discuss reporting options with personnel from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

“We take victims’ experiences seriously, and we are committed to creating an environment where victims of sexual harassment are heard, validated and feel safe to report their experience and receive supportive services,” Del Toro said in a statement in June 2023.

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