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The Joke's on Us

So, did you hear the one about how the commission investigating the University of Colorado recruiting program hung on every word of testimony...from an official at the Air Force Academy, the institution that raised the bar for sex-assault scandals?

But Colonel Debra Gray's appearance Tuesday before the Independent Investigative Commission was no joke -- even though the commission's report may not be much more than that when it's finally delivered to the CU regents next week. Gray was the last, if far from least, in a long line of witnesses to address the panel charged with investigating whether alcohol and sex played a part in CU's football-program recruiting.

Laugh here.

The Air Force Academy knows all about alcohol and sex. Fifteen months ago, a Westword story recounting how victims of sexual assaults at the academy were revictimized by Air Force officials who punished the female cadets rather than their attackers (Julie Jargon's "The War Within," January 30, 2003) blew up into a national scandal, one that resulted in four federal investigations, a complete turnover of the academy's top personnel and the start of Colorado's reputation as the sex-assault capital of the world, a title made stronger by Kobe Bryant's sex-assault charge this past summer and etched in stone after the football-recruiting controversy exploded at CU.

Did you hear the one about the Air Force Academy commandant of cadets who compared partying female cadets to people who walk down dark alleys?

No joke.

In an e-mail responding to Westword's questions about one cadet's sex-assault claims, Brigadier General Taco Gilbert said this in January 2003: "She did engage in some very high-risk behavior that night. Again, the behavior in no way justifies what happened to her, but when you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks. For example, if I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pockets, it doesn't justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increased the risk by doing what I did."

Two months later, Gilbert was out of there, replaced by Colonel Gray, one of a trio of top officers brought in to clean up the academy.

The Air Force Academy is exactly one year beyond CU in dealing with its sex-assault scandal -- and light-years ahead in acknowledging just how badly the early claims were handled. Speaking before the commission, Gray offered calm testimony laced with military and business jargon. Best practices. Integration. Communication. And the panel members lapped it all up like thirsty college kids at a keg party -- in Boulder, Colorado Springs or Kathmandu.

Earlier that morning, they'd heard from the mother of Lisa Simpson, who claims that she was sexually assaulted by football players who'd attended a CU recruiting party on the night of December 7, 2001 -- and whose federal lawsuit against the university that initially dismissed those claims led to all of CU's desperate damage control, including the independent commission. The details of that alcohol-soaked party don't stray far from so many of the stories that female academy cadets tell. Nor do their tales of official indifference -- or worse.

And the commissioners heard from Jeannie Dixon, a former university employee who conducted the Athletic Department's Gender Equity Study (and subsequently charged CU with race and sex discrimination). "Don't ask, don't tell" was standard operating procedure when it came to bad behavior, she said. "What goes on the road stays on the road."

So after those discouraging words, yet another round in a disparate collection of testimony that's supposed to somehow add up to a coherent whole, it wasn't surprising that the commissioners seized on Gray's testimony as a ray of hope. "Thank you for the opportunity to come forward," she began, a novel enough start, since CU administrators past and present have been coming forward with little but accusations -- against their accusers, against their predecessors, against each other. But the academy had a major motivator for change, Gray acknowledged: "In big organizations, it usually takes a crisis. It was, in this case."

Gray was brought in to deal with that crisis. "Since the new leadership of last April, we've been looking at a systems approach," she continued. Those systems stretch down to every cadet and up to the top, since "leadership is responsible." More rare language in this hearing room.

Gray brought all the organizations dealing with "climate" and "culture" together at the counseling center, to facilitate better communication and faster response. But, she noted, "these sorts of things do not change overnight."

By now, she was preaching to the choir. The allegations of bad behavior by CU football players stretch back decades, to the days of coach Bill McCartney, who prayed on the field while a few thuggish athletes graced the pages of Sports Illustrated, and whose teenage daughter later bore the child of the dying quarterback. After leaving CU, McCartney founded Promise Keepers, the Christian ministry aimed at making men better leaders of their families. More than a decade later, Bishop Phillip Porter, a former Promise Keepers chairman, is a member of CU's Independent Investigation Commission.

None of that is a joke, either.

And how, Porter asked Gray, had the situation leading to the scandal been allowed to occur at the academy? "In any large organization, there are a multitude of processes," Gray responded. "If not knitted together properly, there's a disconnect."

And then the women at the academy, at CU, fell through the cracks.

But, wondered commission co-chair Peggy Lamm, could the academy's method of fixing those systems work at a school like CU?

The academy has to play by the same NCAA rulebook, Gray noted -- even if the academy is a military institution, a "hierarchical, bureaucratic model..." While CU could be an "organized anarchy model," offered Lieutenant Colonel Chris Luedtke, who'd accompanied Gray. But that's "a legitimate model, too."

No joke. (But also not much organization to that anarchy.)

To turn things around in Colorado Springs, Gray explained, the academy needed to "integrate our vision of leadership -- and not just leadership development, but development for people seventeen to 21 years old." They had to decide what information was appropriate for students in which years. They brought in a standup comedian to offer an interactive presentation for sophomores on the importance of language in culture. On October 6, the academy held a full day of training for 250 seniors and many officers, training them in victim psychology, in perp behavior. "As an institution," she said, "we were in denial as to the magnitude of the issue."

Not anymore. Gray rolled off the stats: Nine out of ten victims of sex assault don't want to come forward, and it usually takes them five to six months to decide to do so. "One in four women, one in eight-to-ten men, will have been sexually assaulted before they come to our institution." And if you advise them against putting themselves in "at-risk situations," she continued, "many will take it that you're blaming them."

No joke, Taco.

The commission's work is only one of the CU investigations now under way. Attorney General Ken Salazar is still conducting his probe. CU president Betsy Hoffman appointed an athletic-department liaison to look into the situation and also authorized a second, legal investigation. She plans to appoint yet another task force to study how university officials handle sexual-assault allegations.

A case-by-case report on the fifty sexual-assault claims collected after the Air Force Academy story first broke is due in June -- right about the time President George Bush is scheduled to preside over graduation ceremonies.

But in the meantime, the academy is continuing its bureaucratic, hierarchical fix. This past Saturday, it held a three-hour event called "Moving Mountains to End Sexual Assault," with mandatory attendance by juniors and seniors -- "sometimes we just know what's good for them," Gray said -- and voluntary attendance by thousands more from the academy, the community. "We need your strength," speaker Jackson Katz told the cadets. "We need your leadership both here and all over the world." Especially in Colorado, sex-assault capital.

Because have you heard the one about how, despite the changes at the Air Force Academy over the past year, over twenty freshman admitted to cheating on a test last month, in violation of the honor code?

Or the one about how since Gray arrived in Colorado Springs, there have been 21 reports of sexual assaults by cadets -- four in the past month alone?

No joke.

You may already know the punchline, but that doesn't mean you get the last laugh.