USA Swimming responds to sexual abuse scandal by approving new measures to protect athletes

Saturday, September 18, 2010

USA Swimming approves new protection measures

DALLAS — Responding to a sexual abuse scandal that rocked one of the country’s most prominent Olympic sports, USA Swimming expanded background checks, approved new athlete protection measures and made it mandatory for members to report any credible allegations.

The measures were approved by wide margins Saturday at the group’s annual convention in Dallas.

“We have been committed throughout this process, to doing the right thing, and taking actions that, first and foremost, will foster a safe and positive environment for our athletes,” said Jim Wood, the outgoing president of USA Swimming. “Our membership really stepped up today to provide their overwhelming support to this important issue.”

All non-athlete members of the USA Swimming must now pass a criminal background check, a move that will cover between 30,000 and 40,000 additional members. Also, anyone who interacts directly with swimmers, including local club owners and chaperones, must join USA Swimming.

The screenings, which had been required every two years for coaches, will now be updated on a “real-time” basis so any infractions will turn up more promptly in the database. The board of directors already voted earlier this year to subject coaches and officials to a search of county court records for their homes over the previous seven years before they can be approved for membership.

Any club affiliated with USA Swimming must conduct specific pre-employment screenings before hiring any coach, employee or volunteer who would be in a supervisory position over athletes. The national governing body recently approved a list of more than 20 companies that can provide those checks.

The expanded background screenings go into effect Jan. 1.

USA Swimming also required all non-athlete members to complete an “Athlete Protection Education” program as a condition of membership, beginning with the 2011-12 season. The program must be updated every three years.

In addition, athlete protection polices approved by the board in July were formally added to the USA Swimming Code of Conduct. Coaches are prohibited from giving rubdowns to swimmers — even if licensed in massage therapy — and must have the permission of a parent or guardian before they can visit a swimmer’s home. On the road, coaches are barred from sharing a room with athletes regardless of gender (unless it’s their own child) or traveling alone with an athlete without a parent’s written permission.

The organization’s rulebook now includes specific guidelines for reporting allegations of sexual abuse to a new athlete protection officer, Susan Woessner. Failing to report misconduct, retaliating against someone who does or making a false allegations will be violations of the conduct code.

“Reporting must occur when an individual has firsthand knowledge of misconduct or where specific and credible information has been received from a victim or knowledgeable third party,” the new rule says.

Woessner was formally introduced to the membership on Saturday. She is a former competitive swimmer who has worked with the U.S. national team and has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas.

USA Swimming has already released a list of former members receiving lifetime bans, mostly for sexual misconduct, and acknowledged a second list of people who were “flagged” for alleged misconduct against swimmers but did not face disciplinary action because they weren’t current members.

The board voted in July to take those cases before the National Board of Review. Anyone who declines to attend their hearing or loses their case will be added to the list of banned officials.

On Saturday, the governing body went a step further: approving a measure that brings any rule or code violation by a member under the jurisdiction of USA Swimming, even if that person is no longer part of the organization.

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