Air Force Academy to probe reports of rape, drug use, cheating in athletic programs

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force Academy's superintendent ordered an investigation into the school's athletic programs on Sunday amid reports of sexual assaults, drug use and academic cheating, primarily among football players at the elite institution.

Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson said in a statement that she told the U.S. Inspector General's office to look into the "troubling" allegations, including a Dec. 2011 party held by football players that led to the expulsion of several cadets.

"These efforts will help in eliminating subcultures at the Air Force's Academy whose climates do not align with our institutional core values," said Johnson, who graduated from the facility in 1981.

The academy, located in Colorado Springs, has a student body of 4,000, known collectively as the Cadet Wing. Graduates of the school are commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in the Air Force.

The probe was announced following a report in the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper, which chronicled a pattern of recruiting irregularities, preferential treatment given to student-athletes by certain professors, drug use by cadets, and alcohol-fueled parties.

While Johnson's statement referenced the misconduct in general terms, the Gazette reported that at a Dec. 2011 off-campus party, cadets smoked "spice," a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of marijuana.

Some athletes at the party also may have plied women with so-called "date-rape" drugs, the newspaper said. The alleged victims had no recollection of what may have happened to them, and no criminal charges were filed, it said.

When Johnson was appointed last year as the first female superintendent in the academy's 60-year history, it was widely viewed as an effort to change the culture at the school.

In 2003, reports surfaced that dozens of female Air Force Academy cadets had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets over the previous decade, but that academy officials ignored or downplayed their complaints.

The Gazette reported that in the 2012-2013 school year, 45 Air Force cadets reported sexual assaults, representing "nearly two-thirds" of all assaults reported at the nation's three major military academies.

Johnson said she has met with the athletic department's leadership, whom she said have vowed to be more vigilant.

"They've implemented several programs to ensure all cadet-athletes are living up to the Air Force's core values," she said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)