03/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Freshman MacKenzie Isackson was alone in her room at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs one afternoon in August 2000 when, she says, an upperclassman named DonCosta Seawell entered uninvited and locked the door. "He was shorter than me, but he outweighed me," she says of the 21-year-old she alleges then held her down and sexually assaulted her. "Before he left, he asked me, 'Was it good?' " Worried that reporting the incident would mark her as a troublemaker among the mostly male cadet corps, Isackson remained silent for months. When her mother finally contacted a commanding officer, Isackson says he told her that her daughter was promiscuous.
Eighteen months later, another cadet, who wishes to go only by her middle name Lyn, was recovering from pneumonia alone in her Air Force Academy dorm room when, according to her father, Seawell appeared, closed the door and raped her too. When her father contacted the Academy to see what was being done, "They told me they didn't consider this rape," he says, "because she had met [him] before."
Isackson and Lyn are among at least a dozen Air Force Academy cadets who say they were sexually assaulted on campus in recent years and then met with indifference—or retribution—from administrators. In January the Air Force launched an investigation into the Academy's sexual assault policies. Says Air Force secretary James Roche: "We will not tolerate a cadet who sexually assaults another cadet."
Up until now, critics say, the Academy, which revised its sexual assault policies in 1993 after a harassment scandal, has done just that. In the months after Lyn was assaulted, her father says his daughter couldn't avoid Seawell. "He was standing next to her, saying things when she was trying to do her pull-ups and her sit-ups and when she got on the track to run," he says. In October 2002 Seawell pleaded guilty in a military court and was sentenced to two years in prison for "forcible sodomy" of a civilian minor in California in December 2001, but he was never prosecuted for the alleged attacks against Isackson and Lyn. Academy officials allowed Seawell to remain on campus until his trial. "You're innocent until proven guilty," says Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. J.R. Dallager, who adds that out of 99 sexual assault calls from cadets since 1996, 20 resulted in investigations, and only one resulted in a court martial, which ended in acquittal. Because Isackson didn't file a formal complaint, officials never investigated her attack. In Lyn's case "it was determined that there was insufficient evidence," says an Academy spokesman.
That's not surprising to those who say attackers have been protected by a code of silence. "You're expected to stay quiet," says Dorothy Mackey, a retired Air Force captain who runs the Dayton, Ohio-based lobby group called STAMP, or Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel. Several female alumnae approached by PEOPLE say the code is nothing new. Tammy Jones, 40, a New Mexico middle school teacher and a 1985 graduate of the Academy, says an upperclassman raped her in his dorm room when she was a freshman. "An officer said, 'Basically, you have two choices: Report it, and your career here is over. You'll be ostracized, subjected to disciplinary complaints and forced to leave. Or don't report it, and go on with life.' "
Still, many close to the Academy are shocked at the extent of recent allegations. "There were many men who didn't want us there, but I felt safe," says U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.Mex.), a graduate of the school's third coed class in 1982. "But it is a closed institution," she adds. "An upperclassman can decide just about everything about your life—whether you'll be allowed to have a Coke or how many push-ups you'll be forced to do. When upperclassmen abuse that power, it means the victim is very vulnerable to retaliation."
Several ex-cadets claim they were disciplined after their alleged assaults because alcohol was involved. "I would have been treated better if I had not come forward," says Aly, 23, who also doesn't wish to be fully identified. Aly says she was raped after drinking with a classmate in her room in 1998 and that officials focused on the alcohol infraction and not her attack. She dropped out after a year and a half.
Air Force Academy officials say they are taking the charges very seriously. "We want to make sure any cadet who has been assaulted comes forward," says Secretary Roche. "We don't want them inadvertently protecting somebody." For Isackson and Lyn, such assurances come too late. Threatened with expulsion because of low grades and alcohol violations, Isackson, an honor student in high school, dropped out of the Academy in April 2001. Lyn resigned her appointment in January 2003. "Look how many of us quit the Academy because of it," Isackson says of the institution's response to sexual assaults. "It shouldn't have happened in the first place."
Vickie Bane in Colorado, Michael Haederle in Albuquerque, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., and David Searls in Cleveland