AURORA — Swing open the front door beneath the tin roof at Achieve Gymnastics, and the first thing you see are rows of chairs in front of a glass wall.
The design is intentional.
Viewed through the glass is a large arena where the daughters of more than 800 families train and compete. At least two staff members must be on watch at all times. Security cameras blanket the facility. No private communication between student and teacher is allowed without parental permission. Every door, except for a restroom in use, is left open and unlocked.
“There really isn’t anywhere in this gym that you can’t see or get to,” said Lisa Sparrow, Achieve’s program manager and a winner of multiple state championships as the head gymnastics coach at Overland High School.
Why the need for so much transparency? “We can’t afford not to,” said Alan Herron, Achieve’s operations manager.
The dark reality of youth sports is the potential for an adult to take advantage of their position of trust with an athlete and cause irreparable harm.
Former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar recently was sentenced to a maximum 175 years in prison after more than 285 women accused him of sexually assaulting them under the guise of medical treatment. The case ignited national outrage, led to resignations at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State and sparked a renewed obligation to better protect vulnerable young athletes. About 37 percent of children in the United States age 6 to 12 play a team sport, according to the Aspen Institute’s most recent “State of Play” annual survey.
Youth sports organizations across Colorado are making a push to keep those kids safe.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport is a Denver-based nonprofit formed last March through the U.S. Olympic Committee that provides independent investigations of abuse allegations across all Olympic-recognized sports. Over the span of the past 11 months, the center has received 384 inquiries nationwide across 35 sports, according to a SafeSport spokesman. The center also provides outreach tools on its website (safesport.org) meant as educational resources for coaches and parents.
“There are a lot of great policies in there that could be adapted to sport organizations all across the country,” said SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl. “As we grow, we want more capacity to consult with youth sport organizations, especially on what that code of conduct should look like.”
Screening is critical
Many competitive youth travel sports organizations in Colorado have taken proactive steps to reduce the potential for all forms of abuse: verbal, physical, sexual, bullying and hazing, for instance. In a survey of well-known local organizations — Achieve Gymnastics, Real Colorado (girls soccer), Colorado Styxx (girls softball) and Colorado Chaos (boys basketball) — there have been no similar crimes reported. But each organization provided a glimpse into the preventative measures it takes to eliminate the possibility.
A common thread is that all require background checks for coaches, staff and volunteers.
“We have a pretty strict vetting process when we’re hiring new coaches,” said Colorado Chaos head coach Dave Matthews, “and who we trust as far as recommendations for adding coaches to the staff.”
Real Colorado, whose full-time staff members are trained through SafeSport protocol, also requires coaches to undergo annual evaluations by team players and parents that address personal questions such as: Is the coach a good communicator? And would you recommend that coach to a friend?
“When we start to see someone not get the standards we want, we get out for visitations to watch how the interactions take place,” said Jared Spires, Real Colorado’s COO. “And sometimes a coach isn’t the right fit for us.”
Arguably the most important safety measures taken for competitive youth sports relate to travel outside the watchful eye of parents. Colorado Styxx coach Pablo Severtson oversees girl softball players as young as 12, and through the course of a summer his teams can spend more than two weeks on the road.
“I’ve always held a parent meeting at the beginning of the year and said, ‘Here are the rules we’re going to follow and here are the rules we expect your daughter to follow,’ ” Severtson said. “Those parents have to have a ton of trust in you being a male coaching girls on the road.”
Achieve gymnasts must travel in groups of at least two during hotel stays. Coaches enter their rooms only if absolutely necessary — and always in pairs. Real Colorado requires same-sex chaperones and elects “room captains” from among the team to help self-police behavior. If allegations of misconduct arise between any members of the soccer organization, Spires is the point of contact for making a quick decision on how to handle it.
“There is no reason to wait to see what happens,” Spires said. “I’d much rather be the one to immediately remove a situation and then we can deal with the answers to that later. We’ve always been swift to act.”
While preventative safety measures can go a long way toward thwarting abuse before it happens, no plan is foolproof. Because, as Spires puts it: “You’re never going to catch the first-time offender because they’ve never been an offender before.” That leaves the responsibility for reporting incidents on the shoulders of the athlete, a task made difficult when the perpetrator is in a position of established trust, much like Nassar was to his victims.
SafeSport hopes increased media attention surrounding cases such as the Nassar case spark sensitive but necessary discussions with young athletes that clearly define potential forms of abuse and what to do should it arise. SafeSport provides resources for how parents can jump-start those talks.
“These are sometimes hard conversations to have,” Pfohl said. “But conversations about boundaries and age-appropriate ways to talk about their bodies are really important ongoing dialogues to take place.”
Inside the walls of Achieve Gymnastics, the staff works daily to bolster the morale of the young athletes. When girls line up for the start of practice each day, the coaching staff requires that they stand tall with their backs straight and shoulders up at attention.
“We say to them, ‘Look at you guys. You look like strong, confident gymnasts,’ ” Sparrow said. “We do coach gymnastics here, but we work here because we want these girls to grow up into empowered women.”
Sparrow and Herron are disgusted by the crimes committed by Nassar and the systematic failures that allowed his abuse to continue unchecked. It prompted Achieve to re-examine its own safety policies to ensure something similar could never happen under its watch.
Inside their coaches’ office, Herron opens a file cabinet drawer filled with team photos from years past. The smiling faces of hundreds of young gymnasts stare back at him as he flips through the photos. And he’s reminded of all the good his organization, and others like his across the nation, have done for women over the decades.
“We don’t want people to be afraid,” Herron said.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport suggests that parents take charge in understanding the policies in place to protect young athletes. Here are the questions it recommends they ask before enrolling their child in a sports program.
1. What is the organization’s policy on child sexual abuse prevention?
2. How does the program screen staff?
3. What is their policy or code of conduct about interactions between employees/volunteers and youth?
4. How do they monitor interactions between adults and children?
5. Have they considered safety in the physical environment?
6. How do they handle situations like inappropriate behavior or allegations of sexual abuse?
7. What training does staff and volunteers receive about preventing child sexual abuse?