Your young daughter loves basketball. She eats, drinks and sleeps it. She spends hours outside in your driveway shooting hoops.
A coach for a local competitive team sees her playing basketball in the schoolyard during recess and invites her to join his team. You're overjoyed. She doesn't have many friends and her self-esteem isn't the greatest in the world. She thinks of herself as unattractive and awkward. This will give her a chance to build up her confidence, to participate in a sport she loves plus perhaps make new friends as well.
Still, you have reservations. You feel compelled to do your homework into the coach's background. And with good reason too.
According to Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University expert who has studied sexual harassment and abuse in schools, incidents of sexual abuse by coaches and teachers are comparable in magnitude to, but have been overshadowed by the incidents of alleged abuse committed by priests in the Catholic Church. This abuse isn't just limited to coaches. Band directors, music teachers or anybody who has access to your child in a private environment outside of the school setting could be a predator as well.
So, how do you know if your child is safe with their little league coach or not? Do your homework, according to Shoop.
Although he admits there is a substantial amount of money involved, Shoop recommends that any agency that sponsors sports activities or parents themselves conduct a thorough background check on every coach that includes a fingerprint check and have the coach sign a statement of ethics reflecting the ethical policy of the organization.
Shoop also recommends that school districts have a written policy that explicitly talks about sexual abuse and sexual harassment as well as have an anti-fraternization policy that specifically states teachers should not be involved in romantic or sexual relationships with students.
Students should also be "educated" about the potential for this abuse to occur. Shoop said this, along with having a grievance procedure, and having teachers and parents pay attention to what's happening, will help reduce the problem.
To protect themselves from false accusations, Shoop recommends coaches follow these guidelines:
- Conduct open practices.
- Have an assistant coach or another parent at practice.
- Avoid transporting players to and from games or practices.
- Let parents make the decision or be involved in selecting uniforms when coaching players of the opposite sex.
- Avoid personal communication with players.
- Avoid buying players gifts.
- Be on the alert if you have a child who shows particular fondness for you.
How do you know if your child is safe with their sports coach? Just do your homework, said Shoop.
He is regularly consulted on issues pertaining to educational law, risk management and sexual harassment prevention. He is the author or co-author of 14 books including "Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot it and Stop it" and more than 100 journal articles, monographs and book chapters about legal issues. He also has produced award-winning video programs designed to eliminate sexual harassment in public schools and businesses.
"I've had coaches that I've interviewed who said 'I went into coaching because it gave me access to kids' and 'I made a point of being nice to the moms and dads and being real nice to the kids around the moms and dads so they'd see how great a guy I was' or 'I don't drink and I don't smoke so they trusted their kid with me,'" Shoop said. "You can't screen people out by guessing whether they're a good person or bad person because the person who's going to molest will act as nice as anybody else."
Although the vast majority of abuse cases occur between male teachers or coaches and female student athletes, Shoop is quick to caution that female to male and same sex abuse from student athlete to coach or teacher can occur as well.
Shoop said often kids are molested by coaches who are now in their third or fourth school district. They have been either arrested or incarcerated for child molestation and simply move from town to town prior to being identified as a molester, showing up and expressing a desire to coach. Often, the "good old boy" system is alive and well helping these coaches obtain job after job.
So what should parents do to ensure their child's coach is not a predator?
Although he admits there is a substantial amount of money involved, Shoop recommends that any agency that sponsors sports activities conduct a thorough background check on every coach - which includes a fingerprint check - and have the coach sign a statement of ethics that specifies the ethical policy of the organization.
Shoop also recommends that school districts and organizations that sponsor athletic teams have a written policy that explicitly talks about sexual abuse and sexual harassment and have an anti-fraternization policy that specifically states teachers should not be involved in romantic or sexual relationships with students.
"Coaches or teachers shouldn't be going over to their students' house after school," Shoop said. "They shouldn't be buying them presents; they shouldn't be making phone calls to them at night. And the students should know that when any of these things happen, it's inappropriate; a red flag should be raised."
Students should also be educated about the potential for this abuse to occur. Shoop said this, along with having a grievance procedure and having teachers and parents pay attention to what's happening, will help reduce the problem.
"You have to warn the kids that this could happen," Shoop said. "I have worked with kids who are being sexually molested by their father, for example, and they believe that that's happening to every child. They don't understand that what's happening to them is unique because no one's helped them to understand what an appropriate relationship is.
"Consequently," Shoop continued, "if nobody tells a child that there are adults who will harm you, that you need to be careful, they're not likely to understand that what's happening to them is harmful."
According to Shoop, denial of the problem is as negligent as failing to conduct background checks.
"There is sort of a righteous indignation that many coaches feel - they just get angry about this whole topic because it embarrasses them," Shoop said. "They feel like they're good people and they get sick of hearing about the 'bad people' - that talking about it makes people think they're bad.
"In many cases other kids know that the coach or the teacher is molesting another kid but they feel so loyal to their friend that they don't tell anybody," Shoop continued. "The same thing is true with teachers who become suspicious but they just can't believe it because the coach or teacher is such a nice guy. So teachers, coaches and students have to be willing to at least raise suspicions when they have them, rather than turn their back on them and fail to see the things that are right in front of them."
Shoop said it's a tragedy that good, competent, ethical people have to be afraid or even leave the field of coaching because of fear of false accusations that may destroy their reputation. He recommends these suggestions for coaches to protect themselves:
- Conduct open practices. "Coaches don't like obnoxious, overbearing parents coming in and coaching their kids from the stands," Shoop said. "That's understandable but the downside is, once you have a closed practice and some allegation comes up that a person did something, you don't have any witnesses there and people get suspicious when they go, 'oh yeah, he told us we can't hang around the practice. I guess he must have done that so he could do something bad.'"
- Have an assistant coach or another parent at practice. "The issue of having another person there the majority of the time - whether it's a spouse, a friend or parent volunteer being involved as a co-coach - eliminates one less opportunity to be alone with the children," Shoop said.
- Avoid transporting players to and from games or practices. "The problem, of course, becomes there's always that emergency or that weird situation where suddenly the coach gets a phone call from somebody that can't get to a practice or a game," Shoop said. "But that's an unusual situation where the parent knows about it as opposed to just a practice where 'I live by you, I will just drop you home.' Even though it's so natural to do it, you don't want to be alone in a car with one of your athletes."
- When coaching players of the opposite sex, even for something like selecting uniforms, let parents make the selections or be involved. "I worked in cases where the coach selects the uniforms and they end up being low cut in the front, high legs and it becomes awkward for the girls to wear some of the uniforms that the coaches pick."
- Avoid personal communication with players. "I would make it a practice to keep all the e-mails I send and keep them printed out," Shoop said. "If it's an e-mail saying 'practice is tomorrow at 3:30, be there,' that's fine. But if that kid e-mails you and says, "Dear coach, you are the only person that listens to me and I just want to tell you some things that are happening and maybe you can help me with it,' be careful. You are not their counselor, therapist or their doctor and you don't want to get into those situations."
- Avoid buying players gifts. "It's such a temptation to have a kid having a birthday and buy her a little doll or buy them - depending on the age of the child - something that maybe they can't get from their parents or they don't have," Shoop said. "But it's just not a good idea to buy gifts. If you buy gifts for one, you should buy gifts for all of them. And it's much better to have a fund that parents contribute to and you buy the team things for everybody rather than saying, 'Oh gee, I notice this kid is coming and their baseball glove is just shot. I've got an old glove I'll give to them.' In that case, give it to the parent and have the parent give it to the kid. Don't you give it to them directly."
- Be on the alert if you have a child who shows particular fondness for you. "It's so flattering and a nice feeling to have children like you and feel you're a good person," Shoop said. "But if a child is showing inappropriate interest in you, seems to want to hang around you or tells you how great you are and how special you are, the tendency would be to be drawn toward that child. My feeling would be that you need to set boundaries and make sure that you don't spend any more time with that child than you would any other child. Realize that if a child is particularly dependent and particularly emotionally unstable that that's likely a kid who's going to make a false complaint. If you reject that child and then suddenly they say, 'Oh yeah, he did something to me.' So it's better to nip those kinds of thing in the bud and have a professional relationship. If you go out with them afterwards to have a hamburger or pop or something after a game, that's fine but it's much better to do it with parent volunteers than to do it with just you and the kids."
While a lot of Shoop's suggestions sound like common sense, he said predators can and do use all those situations to develop contact with their victims. The naive person gets involved in something without even knowing it and then it gets very difficult to get out.
"If you behave in a way your behavior could be misconstrued, and then later someone misconstrues it, you're going to have to take the responsibility that you put yourself in that situation," Shoop said.