Air Force Academy chief responds to CBS News sexual assault investigation

Last Updated Dec 14, 2017 2:57 PM EST

In response to our six-month investigation into sexual assault allegations at the United States Air Force Academy, current superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said he's "disgusted" by the reports, but also said the academy doesn't have "problems" when it comes to handling the cases. More than a dozen current and former cadets told CBS News they reported their sexual assaults to the Air Force Academy only to experience retaliation by their peers and their commanders.

"Just like you, I mean, I'm disgusted by that," Silveria said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." "I'm a parent. I have two children that are in their early 20s that went to college. Their mother, my wife, would be horrified if that happened to one of our children so I'm just as disgusted by … those assaults happened to those people, just as anyone else."

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Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria    CBS News

Silveria began his tenure at the Air Force Academy in August of this year, succeeding retired Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, who had been superintendent since 2013.

In Part I of the investigation on Monday, "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell spoke to current and former cadets, one of whom said she regrets reporting her experience every day "because of everything that came after." She requested we protect her identity. In the second part of our investigation, the academy's former top official on sexual assault prevention and response, Teresa Beasley, told O'Donnell she believes the academy has tried to cover up circumstances surrounding two violent attacks on female cadets that occurred in December 2014 and January 2015 on the public running and biking trail behind the academy.

"Do you believe that two cadets were raped on that trail?" O'Donnell asked Silveria.

"I don't know exactly what happened on the trail. But let me make it very, very clear, Norah, that whatever happened on the trail, the most important thing is that those cadets get support and that they get care and that their voices are heard and they have an opportunity to talk about – with someone to receive that care," Silveria said.

Air Force Academy cadets speak out on sexual assault, retaliation

Silveria said the academy did an "exhaustive" investigation into the incidents and "added a number of measures and protective measures on to the trail."

Over the past 10 years, there have been 287 sexual assault reports made by cadets at the academy, which includes 32 reports last school year.

"Do you think there is a problem, General, at the academy when it comes to sexual assault and how it's being handled? Do you think that there are problems there?" "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King asked Silveria.

"I don't think there are problems, and let me tell you why. It is that you talked about some of the reporting of the numbers of sexual assaults. I want numbers of reports to go up. I know that doesn't make sense right on the surface, but I want reporting to go up … so that I can provide that care, provide that support," Silveria said. "Last year 38 percent of the assaults that were reported to our offices, 38 percent were assaults that happened prior to arriving at the Air Force Academy, which means some cadets received care and support for something that happened prior to arriving at the academy. That's why I want to have that available to them, that support."

Former Air Force Academy official alleges sexual assault cover-ups

Silveria said he's responsible "for the climate and the culture" at the academy. 

"It's been very clear that I expect the cadets and the faculty and the staff to treat each other with respect and dignity and I've enforced that from the very beginning," Silveria reiterated on "CBS This Morning." "But it's also about accountability and so the office that was providing the support -- and I know you interviewed someone who was in charge of that office -- it's about the accountability of that office. And so there were some allegations that she made about the office, but she was in a leadership role in that office, and while I respect her service in that office, there are standards in that office that we needed to maintain. You ran the piece about Gen. Johnson that she initiated the investigation. She had to take action because our cadets deserve the very best." 

He said he's holding everyone to a higher standard at the academy.

"Last month we removed a cadet that -- for sexual assault. Last month we also removed a cadet for racial slurs. I've also held one of our athletic teams to a very high standard and suspended some coaches and players for not meeting standards. So I think what's important is my role is to set that climate and set that culture at the Air Force Academy," Silveria said. 

CBS News obtained an email Silveria sent to Air Force Academy alumni, parents and supporters the day after he appeared on "CBS This Morning." Here it is in full:

Dear Academy Family, Friends and Supporters,

CBS Morning News ran a two-part piece on sexual assault at USAFA earlier this week.  The first segment featured cadet victims (past and present) and their claims of being retaliated against.  While I cannot comment on the specifics of their cases, I want to be clear that retaliating against any victim of sexual assault is not acceptable.  I will not tolerate it anywhere in the chain of command or from their fellow cadets.  The second part of the story focused on misconduct in the SAPR office, the resulting investigation, claims of retaliation against the former director, and claims of deliberately underreporting sexual assault numbers. 

Sexual Assault is a topic that is always difficult to discuss, which is why I traveled to New York to do so in person with CBS live this week.  We cannot avoid this topic. Instead, we must be engaged and lead the national dialogue around preventing sexual violence and harassment on college campuses and in our military.  Beyond prevention, our priorities must always be centered around victim care, including making sure that victims are never attacked for their choice to report the crime.  These are the messages I shared with CBS, and they are important ones.  But our most important message, the one we must share with our cadets and personnel, is that if they suffer, or have suffered a sexual assault, we want them to report it and know that we will take care of them. 

Since I arrived in August, I have emphasized that we will treat each other with dignity and respect.  The reason is simple.  If we all treat one another with dignity and respect these heinous crimes cannot happen. Moreover, in an environment with dignity and respect at the forefront, victims are supported and do not continue to suffer after they come forward the way the cadets interviewed Monday did.  Clearly, they did not feel like they were treated with dignity or respect.  Failure to treat others with dignity and respect remains a red line with me, and crossing it is unacceptable.    

In late September, I challenged USAFA to combat these breaches of our culture and climate with better ideas.  Talking openly about this on national TV elevates the conversation and is a better idea.  Using that example to start discussion in classrooms, squadron day rooms, and locker rooms is a better idea.  Listening to survivors that have had the courage to come forward, and taking the time to reflect and be critical of ourselves and our processes in order to improve is a better idea.  We are witnessing this across our nation as victims of sexual harassment and assault are coming forward to tell their stories.  The #MeToo movement is a better idea.

But what does this mean at USAFA?  It cannot be reduced to a trendy hashtag or fad.  It must be used as an opportunity for us to take action.  We can talk about dignity and respect all we want, but it's what we do in the dorms, at the airfield, in the classroom, in the locker room, and around the base that matters.  How we treat each other, not catchy slogans, is the bedrock of our culture.  I want to challenge USAFA, but especially our cadets, to think about what they are doing to combat this.  How do they react when they hear a victim's story?  What do they say when people blame or question a victim?  What comments do they leave on Jodel and in other anonymous social media environments?  I want our cadets, faculty and staff to take some time over the break to think about how their actions are contributing positively to USAFA's culture of dignity and respect.

We want to be open and transparent with our entire USAFA community, including our parents and alumni, who each play a vital role in supporting our cadets.  If you are a parent you should know that the safety of your sons and daughters is a top priority for all leaders at USAFA, but if an incident has occurred either here or elsewhere, we are absolutely committed to their care and support.  If you are a graduate you are piece of the foundation this Academy is built upon. Know that across our campus we are committed to ensuring that we are fostering a culture that reflects your proud legacy of excellence, and that allows us to produce leaders of impeccable character for our Air Force.

Finally, the CBS story is focused on USAFA, but my message for you is even bigger.  Our Air Force, not just the Academy, demands that we treat each other with dignity and respect.  This time last year, I was leading the Air War over Iraq and Syria.  Every day across the AOR, Airmen depended on one other and placed their lives in each other's hands.  That level of trust is absolutely essential to success in combat.  But how can you trust someone with your life, if you can't trust them to treat you with dignity and respect?  It really is that simple.

Thank you for your support.  If you have any questions or concerns, please email me or call my office at 719-333-XXXX.

Very Respectfully,

Lt Gen Jay Silveria

USAFA Superintendent