DENVER (AP) _ America's three service academies all reluctantly brought women students into their elite, male-dominated world at the same time. Yet 27 years later, while the Air Force Academy is mired in a scandal over the handling of sex assault accusations by women cadets, West Point and Annapolis have escaped criticism.

The Air Force this past week ousted the top brass and ordered a slate of changes in the way women are housed as assault accusations are investigated at the pine-clad campus in the Rocky Mountain foothills.

It also destroyed a symbol of academy culture Friday that has rankled female cadets and women's advocates since the campus went coed in 1976, chiseling raised letters off a stone arch that read ``Bring Me Men.''

Critics were guardedly positive about the changes, which included the appointment of two women officers among the academy's top four leaders.

``The thing that made a big difference at West Point and Annapolis was having senior women officers as role models,'' said Robert Kaufman, an attorney who has twice served on government panels overseeing gender issues in the military. ``I think it is likely to change at the Air Force Academy, too.''

In reality, procedures for dealing with assault accusations at the academy weren't that different from those at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The three institutions have similar rules for dealing with women who report assaults and similar education programs on date rape and rape awareness.

The difference, according to insiders and advocates, lay in a refusal to accept change at the Air Force campus in Colorado Springs.

Statistics on assault cases at the schools are incomplete and difficult to compare.

West Point has had 15 reported cases, ranging from unwanted kissing to rape, since August 1999 _ or about 4.3 per year. Ten of the 15 accused cadets resigned or were forced out of the academy, three received lesser punishments, one was cleared by DNA evidence and one case is pending.

Annapolis had 11 cases reported during the last three academic years, an average of 3.6 per year. Charges were substantiated in four cases, a finding that generally leads to expulsion, three are pending and four cadets apparently were cleared, based on the fragmentary information the institution provided.

The Air Force Academy says it has had 56 cases of sexual misconduct since 1993, an average of 5.6 per year. Six cadets have faced courts-martial during that time, resulting in five convictions. At least eight others were dismissed from the academy, and seven others were reprimanded after disciplinary hearings. Not all the cases involved cadets as victims.

Those figures don't reflect a central accusation in the Air Force scandal _ that women cadets avoid reporting assaults for fear it will hurt their careers.

Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican who has been pushing the Air Force for reform, says he's cautiously optimistic the changes announced this week will change a culture that he believes lags that at the other service academies.

Allard notes that media coverage of the scandal has prompted 50 women to contact his office about alleged assaults at the Air Force Academy, but has brought out just one alleged victim from the other academies to contact another senator's office.

``All I can say is that we are not getting out of the other academies the reports of rape and sexual assault that we are getting out of the Air Force Academy,'' said Allard.

In Colorado Springs, at least 38 female cadets sought help from the nearest civilian rape crisis center because they feared reporting to academy officials would jeopardize their careers.

In contrast, the civilian rape crisis center closest to West Point hasn't had any similar cases, said Lucille Rushing, director of crisis services for the Rape Survivor Advocacy Program in Goshen, N.Y.

Officials at the civilian rape crisis center nearest Annapolis declined to be interviewed. But the national Rape Abuse & Incest National Network checked and found no spike in cases at the center, said network spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback.

It was a scandal in 1990 that prompted the Navy to crack down on harassment of women at Annapolis, said Kaufman.

Annapolis went to great lengths to control abuses after it became public that a female midshipman was chained to a urinal and photographed by male midshipmen after she threw a snowball at them.

``The Navy became so ashamed of themselves, they decided to try to be the best,'' said Kaufman.

The Army had a strong policy of equal treatment from the start, said Kaufman, who monitored the arrival of the first female cadets at West Point in 1976 while investigating a cheating scandal for President Ford.

When Army football players were caught groping female cadets in 1994, Kaufman said, it was the male cadets who reported the players. Commanders made it public and punished the offenders.

Kaufman, who focused on gender issues at the three academies when he served on Defense Department's Advisory Panel on Women from 1996 to 1999, said he never saw that kind of attitude shift at the Air Force Academy. When he objected to the ``Bring Me Men'' sign in 1999, he said, Air Force officials turned him aside.

``They said it was part of their tradition and would stay,'' Kaufman said. ``That sign reflected an attitude that was present at Colorado Springs that I don't think was present at the other academies.''

Lory Manning, a retired Navy officer who monitors the military for the Women's Research and Education Institute, recalls attending a conference in Colorado Springs as recently as 1998 and seeing faculty wearing hats branded ``LCWB.'' The caps are an infamous badge of the graduating class of 1979, the abbreviation a crude anatomical reference to the ``last class'' that was all-male.

The scandal, she said, ``is an outgrowth of a very sexist culture.''

``The ball is in their court and they need to figure out a way to monitor what they are doing to make sure it is attacking the root of the problem.''