Four high-ranking officers will be replaced as part of a housecleaning at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which has been reeling in recent weeks from allegations of sexual assault and harassment, officials said Tuesday.
The announcement of the sweeping changes, along with new rules to safeguard female cadets and toughen accountability, is to be made at the Pentagon today by Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper.
While they refused to discuss the changes publicly Tuesday, Air Force leaders briefed key members of Congress, outlining their plans for rescuing the academy's reputation. Officials recently disclosed 56 reports of alleged sexual assault or harassment at the Colorado Springs, Colo., school over the last decade.
"It's pretty obvious we're going to be announcing some new leadership," said one Pentagon official close to the decision to replace the four officers.
Another official, Lt. Col. Dewey Ford -- a member of a special Pentagon task force dispatched to the academy for the investigation -- said Roche and Jumper will unveil a number of improvements aimed at restoring confidence among the 4,100 cadets on campus. "We will discuss a variety of directives that we are going to make," he said.
Congressional and Air Force officials said the officers being replaced are: Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, who serves as the No. 2 academy leader and as commandant of cadets; Col. Steve Eddy, vice superintendent; Col. Bob Eskridge, vice commander; and Col. Sue Slavec, training group commander.
The school superintendent, Lt. Gen. John R. Dallager, is likely to remain until his planned retirement in June, officials said.
It was unclear Tuesday who would replace those leaving. But a Senate aide said after the Capitol Hill briefing that two of the positions will go to women.
The aide added that one of the four replacements will serve as vice commandant, as well as in a new position of academy ombudsman to investigate and review future allegations of sexual misconduct.
The four current leaders will be reassigned to new positions in the Air Force, the aide said.
Although many have called for the removal of the current leadership -- particularly because of the poor response to sexual abuse allegations -- some critics said far more needs to be done.
Kate Summers, advocacy director for a program that has counseled thousands of military members who said they were victims of sexual assault, said total accountability for offenders and supervisors is crucial.
"I think the problem is much more systemic than just the removal of leadership or separating the men and women cadets into separate dorms," said Summers of the Miles Foundation in Newtown, Conn.
The Air Force's latest decision, which was first reported Tuesday in the Denver Post, comes after officials, while acknowledging that they would not tolerate any sexual misconduct, first expressed confidence in the current school leadership.
Earlier this month, Jumper apologized to the female cadets who said they were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade, adding that "we will assure them that they can be proud of this institution."
But even with today's pending announcement, critics still are demanding significant improvements.
"No, I'm not satisfied," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said after the briefing. "Changing the leadership is a serious action, but it is not sufficient."
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said he wants the school to revamp its record-keeping process and improve how sexual crimes are reported. "We need to have some changes in leadership at the top," he said. "I think they're moving in the right direction."
But Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) said that simply removing a quartet of leaders does not mean all will be well.
"It's good news and bad news," he said. "It's good that they won't be at the academy any more. It's bad news they are going to be someplace else."
"The problems at the Air Force Academy are systemic and flow right up the chain of command," he said.
He said the Air Force must establish a "brand new atmosphere at the academy," where cadets are not afraid to come forward with allegations of sexual assault for fear their careers would be tarnished, if not ruined.
The new atmosphere must be "one where the morale of the institution could be maintained at the highest possible level and where we can create officers and gentlemen and gentle ladies."
"That does seem possible. But it doesn't seem possible unless there is a real recognition of the nature of the problem," Tancredo said. "And this move does not indicate they have yet come to this conclusion."
Gilbert could not be reached for comment; classes are on spring break.
But earlier this year, he said all of the cases of sexual assault had been completely investigated and that misconduct was thoroughly punished.
Many of the school's critics, as well as some of the victims, have alleged that while female cadets saw their careers abruptly finished, male offenders went on to success.
Summers said the Air Force should develop a "comprehensive and strategic plan" to help survivors of sexual abuse in the military and to educate leaders on how to reduce the problem.
She said, for example, that the Air Force Academy should hire sexual assault nurse examiners who are specially trained and certified to collect evidence for potential prosecutions.
Summers said more should be done to protect the privacy of victims who come forward, because now military records "can become available to a number of individuals, and that has serious implications, especially for a sexual assault victim."
Summers also said military and civilian law enforcement authorities in Colorado Springs should "coordinate and collaborate" on reports of crimes, and that punishment -- in the form of school discipline or courts-martial and criminal trials -- should be instituted.
"There's a whole myriad of things you'd have to look at," she said.
People who live and work near the academy said morale among cadets has seemed especially low.
"All of them are being painted by this mess," said Rick Barksdale, a nearby resident who said he has many friends in the Air Force. "It's supposed to be an honor to be accepted at the academy. It's time for some changes in the command."
Times staff writer Eric Slater in Colorado Springs, Colo., contributed to this report.