First, the Pentagon needs to change the regulation that dictates how military leaders should respond to complaints of sexual harassment. This change could, on its own, reduce the incidence of sexual assault.
Perpetrators of sexual assault use sexual harassment as a tool to identify victims, looking for the vulnerable and socially isolated. They also use harassment to test witnesses — to see who will report them and who will just look the other way.
This is where prevention must begin: Striking this practice from the books. As long as this policy remains, every other reform — including changes to the military justice system — will be meaningless. “Lowest appropriate level” is jargon for a military custom that, when people have a minor personal dispute, they should work it out on their own, ideally without the involvement of supervisors.
“Individuals who believe they have been sexually harassed will be encouraged to address their concerns or objections regarding the incident directly with the person demonstrating the harassing behavior via the informal resolution procedures; however, informal resolution is not required.”
Further, “The purpose and intent of an informal resolution procedure is to put in place an effective system to resolve complaints of sexual harassment at the lowest appropriate level…. [The] system will:
a. Emphasize the individual accountability of the recipient, accused, co-workers and chain of command.
b. Clarify the roles for co-workers and the chain of command.
c. Teach interpersonal communication skills….”
Sexual harassment leads to sexual assault
While we can never say for certain if the “lowest appropriate level” policy contributed to Guillen’s death, we can say that, as long as it remains in place, others are at greater risk.
The military should replace the “lowest appropriate level” requirement for sexual harassment with a requirement that leaders take all such reports seriously and respond appropriately.
That brings us to the second step on the path to prevention: Military leaders are responsible for establishing a safe command climate and must be held accountable if they fail to do so.
In the past, this might have been excused on the grounds that leaders can quantify the dangers of tactical incompetence; they know what can happen when a watch team is poorly trained or a gun is poorly maintained. But there’s been no equivalent tool to predict when someone’s at risk of sexual assault.
It is unimaginable that a leader could know that and fail to act. And it is incomprehensible that, if they did not, they would remain in any leadership capacity.
It’s time to get serious about prevention. And the fastest, easiest and possibly most effective methods would be to eliminate the policy of handling sexual crimes at “the lowest appropriate level” and to educate commanders, holding them accountable if they establish a climate with a higher risk of likelihood for sexual assault. In short, to require the military live up to the culture and code it already has.