Abuse scandals have rocked multiple sports organizations repeatedly over the past decade, and unfortunately, the torrent of headlines has not stopped. In the latest incident, a South Carolina cheer gym was revealed to be home to a web of sexual abuse committed not only by its founder but also allegedly by six other coaches hired to work in the gym.
The facts, laid out in lawsuits filed after the founder committed suicide upon learning he was under investigation, are chilling. No background checks were conducted on new hires, and there was little to no oversight of interactions between coaches and cheer program participants. Inappropriate conduct and illegal contact occurred at the gym and in private homes. The scandal has reached an expansive scope, with affiliated gyms dissolving their link to the South Carolina brand.
The horrific extent of the abuse is shocking and should serve as both a stark warning and a reminder to any operator of a youth group, be it a traveling sports team or a cheerleading gym. What are some of the critical lessons that educational and sports organizations should take away from this story? What policies can you use to avoid the pitfalls that can lead to real and lasting harm?
Build Background Checks Into the Process
Although the founder of the South Carolina gym was at the root of the problem, youth sports organizations don't usually form in such bad faith. For operators of these groups, thorough vetting of all potential new hires is critical. Background checks can't tell the future, but a diligent procedure can increase the chance that you will be alert to potentially dangerous individuals. Sometimes, even convicted sex offenders will cross state lines, dodge the registration process, and try to re-enter spaces where they can commit additional crimes. Background checks are your barrier to entry.
Create and Enforce Policies That Limit Dangerous Situations
Vetting is crucial, but it can't predict if someone will choose the wrong path later. Rely on strength in numbers and build an environment that emphasizes accountability. Policies that ensure there are always two adults supervising a group, for example, limit opportunities for inappropriate behavior. Shape these policies based on the needs of your organization, but ensure that there are clear expectations. More importantly, enforce these guidelines. Too much abuse has occurred because leaders did not follow their own rules.
Even if your state does not classify those working in your group as mandatory reporters, consider the value of implementing training in such an area regardless. Teach staff to recognize the signs of abuse and the warning signs of potential trouble. When it comes to protecting the safety of children, making every effort is hardly optional.
Foster a Safer Environment and Keep Kids Safe
Ultimately, it is hard to create a 100% guarantee that no one will cross a line when they occupy a position of authority over children—but you can come as close as possible. Careful, selective hiring, extensive vetting through a pre-employment background check, and a proactive attitude toward enforcing every policy all contribute to making these environments safer. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn new skills and push their physical limits. It helps to equip yourself to do your part to enable those youthful explorations without serious risks.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments