Sexual assault at the US military academies is a "persistent problem", according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Despite efforts to prevent and prosecute sexual assaults, the number of reported incidents at the service academies is up 23 percent this year.
There were 80 reported sexual assaults of both men and women at the three academies which train young people to be officers in the Army, Air Force, and Navy.
After delivering the annual report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies to Congress, Panetta called for a “strong and immediate response,” ordering the schools to enhance prevention programs and work to change academy culture within three months.
Of the 80 assaults reported, victims provided information for a potential prosecution in 42 of those cases. So far 4 cadets or midshipmen have been convicted on some charge.
But critics say the Pentagon’s efforts haven’t been enough and a major overhaul is needed.
"There is a culture of high tolerance for rape and sexual predators in the ranks that pervades the military and has given rise to the existing epidemic," Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said.
The US military has faced a number of incidents of sexual misconduct this year, including the assault of 54 female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The Air Force has accused 28 instructors of misconduct at Lackland and continues to investigate basic training there.
The Pentagon admits sexual assaults are vastly underreported and believes there were around 19,000 sexual assaults across the services last year.
Major General Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office says only 14 percent of assaults are reported in both the active military and at the service academies.
Panetta has addressed the problem of sexual assault several times this year and offered new guidelines for prevention and prosecution.
"The United States military has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. And we will hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable," he said last January.
In April Panetta announced new regulations. Among them, having higher ranking officers investigate incidents, immediate transfer for someone who files charges if they request one and requiring more education to newly enlisted service members.