‘Making Noise’ Is Key to Breaking Down Institutional Silence on Sexual Assault

Denise Krepp, B.A. ’95, says she was forced out of the government for trying to investigate how the Merchant Marine Academy handles sexual assault.

September 13, 2017

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Denise Krepp, B.A. ‘95, said she felt ethically obligated as chief counsel for the U.S. Maritime Administration to request an investigation into how the Merchant Marine Academy handles cases of sexual misconduct. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

The most significant thing sexual assault survivors and advocates can do to pursue justice is create a paper trail, said Denise Krepp, B.A. ‘95 and former chief counsel for U.S. Maritime Administration. Documenting harassment, assault and contacts with people in power will help the press and ethical government officials investigate crimes that frequently go unreported.

At the Elliott School of International Affairs Tuesday Ms. Krepp explained how she oversaw counsel for the Merchant Marine Academy, a military academy, in September 2011 when a student whistleblower came forward to report incidents of sexual assault. Ms. Krepp requested the Office of Inspector General within the Transportation Department, who oversees the Maritime Administration, launch an investigation into the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.

Ms. Krepp, a political appointee, was doing what she thought was ethical, but quickly found herself on the other end of an angry phone call from the secretary of transportation who forbid her to move forward with the request. Months later she was told to resign or she would be fired. Since leaving the government, Ms. Krepp, a former Coast Guard officer, has been speaking out about underreported and mishandled sexual assault cases in military academies.

Ms. Krepp spoke at the Elliott School about her experience and gave tips to help advocates and survivors build the best possible cases. The event, titled “Sexual Assault at a Federal Service Academy, a Whistleblower's Perspective,” was part of the “Why Ethics Matter” speaker series.

Ms. Krepp kept copies of the Merchant Marine Academy whistleblower’s complaint, even though she was barred from investigating the reported assault. When she left she was able to share that information—and how the investigation was stifled—to advocate for change.

Young people today are effective at speaking out about difficult issues, but they need to focus on keeping documentation that will make their stories credible in the eyes of congressional leaders and the media, she said.

“Your generation is being much more upfront, you’re talking, you’re saying things. But in addition to talking you need to document, Ms. Krepp said. “You have to keep the documentation so that you can share it with the press. You have to keep the documentation so that you can share it with members of Congress. Without that documentation, regardless of what it looks like, people have a hard time believing you.”

Advocates should ask for raw data—not simply compiled reports— to get a full picture of what is happening in a city or college campus. Many sexual assault cases are handled through settlement agreements, so advocates should also look at how much money an organization sets aside for these, Ms. Krepp said.

Stakeholders should seek out public officials like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who are already speaking about these issues and will be sympathetic to the issue. They should contact reporters who cover these issues to provide them information they want publicized, Ms. Krepp said.

Ms. Krepp started talking about military academy cases publically in 2012 and 2013, she said. It wasn’t until 2016 and this year she started to see things change.

“You have to be prepared to have these conversations over and over and over again,” she said.

Progress on the issue of sexual assault and harassment is slow, Ms. Krepp said. It often feels like you are just making noise, but it is important for passionate people to continue taking up this fight, she said.

“Absent the noise, it keeps on going, and you have more victims, and you have more people who are traumatized,” Ms. Krepp said.

In military academies in particular, students are worried about how speaking out about harassment and assault will impact their careers. As chief counsel for the Maritime Administration Ms. Krepp said she would hear about incidents on campus, but students rarely wanted to report or discuss them.

Military leadership tends to be a small community, she said, and scandals would follow individuals throughout their careers. It can be difficult to balance wanting to make noise about assault and students’ desire to move forward without being defined by a single incident.

Survivors often cope with the emotional trauma of sexual assault long after graduation, Ms. Krepp said.

“It not only harms them and their psyche, and it hurts their ability to have trust in others, but it hurts their spouses. It hurts their children, and that is something that has to stop. That is why I believe in the noise,” she said. “We cannot ask people to go into the military, we cannot ask them to do certain things, put them in this situation and then dump them like trash.”