PHOENIX, Arizona, September 13. JUST a year removed from being hired as the top enforcement officer when it comes to Athlete Protection policies at USA Swimming, Athlete Protection Officer Susan Woessner joins Swimming World for an exclusive one-year update interview.
A year ago, USA Swimming had just implemented a variety of Athlete Protection policies while at the House of Delegates meeting in Dallas, and Woessner was hired to take control of the enforcement, education and investigation structure that applied those policies within USA Swimming.
A quick refresher on Woessner:
Woessner, who went on to compete for Indiana University from 1998-2002 and was named the 2002 Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and the Outstanding Woman in Indiana Athletics that same year, has plenty of background in the sport. She also competed for the Stars and Stripes at the 2001 World University Games. Two years after graduating from IU, Woessner was hired as the Times Coordinator of USA Swimming in 2004.
In 2007, Woessner moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Master's of Social Work at the University of Texas while still remaining connected with USA Swimming in a part time capacity. During her time in Austin, she worked with the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin and the Southwest Key Programs – both youth-oriented organizations built to help middle school and high school kids.
Upon graduating from UT in 2009, she returned to USA Swimming full time as the National Team Athlete and Coach Coordinator working in athlete services, life skills and professional development and funding. She also has volunteered as the court-appointed special advocate for the Pike Peaks Region in Colorado Springs since returning to the area. Her role as Athlete Protection Officer officially began on Sept. 13, 2010.
Swimming World caught up with Woessner just before this week's convention in Jacksonville, Fla., where even more parts of the Athlete Protection plan will be voted on.
With a year behind you, how do you think the Athlete Protection structure put in place last year is working so far?
As I look back on the work over the last year, it is clear that we have created the flagship Athlete Protection Program in Olympic sports and we're extremely proud of that. I know that it is working because our members are using the system. They are identifying and reporting inappropriate behavior, and that empowers USA Swimming to take action. They are calling me to ask questions and seek clarification on the guidelines and policies we put in place. We've had 30,000 non-athlete members processed through our background-check program, and we've provided pre-employment screening resources to all our clubs.
What do you think needs to be improved upon for Athlete Protection, and what do you think is really working the best?
Ensuring the full membership understands all aspects of the Athlete Protection program has been challenging and some aspects of the program have taken time to develop. Next week we are launching an online athlete protection education program, the completion of which is a mandatory part of membership. We will also be launching an age-appropriate education program for our 300,000 athletes and their parents later this fall.
To develop the program, we partnered with Praesidium, the leading child protection education organization in the country. Education is the cornerstone of our athlete protection effort, and this piece of programming is an integral part of our efforts further empower our membership to be advocates for safe sport.
Awareness of the need for athlete protection programs is high. We see this through many channels. Clubs are using the athlete protection section of our website as a resource. 30,000 non-athlete members have completed our augmented background checks. Clubs are also embracing the pre-employment screening guidelines and our members are willing to use our reporting structure to call out inappropriate behavior.
Have any changes occurred since Athlete Protection was created a year ago? What types of changes do you have the power to make, and what types of changes do you need delegates to vote in?
Yes. A couple of significant changes have taken place. A large part of my role is listening to and gathering feedback from our membership. I use these insights to work with the Athlete Protection Committee and volunteer membership, who put forth legislation for our delegates to review. One example is the concern members had about the cost of some of the athlete protection education measures that I spoke about earlier. We brought those concerns to our Board of Directors and found a way to put this mandatory programming in place at no cost to our members.
Another example is the issue of bullying. From the feedback I received, we have developed anti-bullying legislation and placed it on the ballot for the House of Delegates. The legislation is modeled after a Massachusetts law, and I'm optimistic that it will be supported by our membership.
What type of feedback have you heard from the membership?
The resounding response to our efforts has been really positive. And I look forward to hearing more from our membership over the next several weeks and months as they experience the new online education program.
Please explain the reporting process from your point of view, and exactly what steps Athlete Protection takes to ban an individual from USA Swimming membership, now that you have actually gone through the process in real life versus a year ago when you were new to the position.
I'm glad you asked this question as I think there is often confusion about this topic. First, all complaints that include credible information about a Code of Conduct violation are investigated.
To be actionable, a complaint needs to include the name of the individual accused of a Code of Conduct violation and what that violation is. If the complaint involves a minor, the local authorities are alerted.
After I receive and review the complaint, the information is handed over to a third-party investigator for further investigation. If the complaint is found to have merit, the National Board of Review (NBOR) takes action. The NBOR is a three-person panel made up of volunteer members, including one athlete member. The NBOR convenes a hearing and hands down a decision. If the panel finds that the member violated the Code of Conduct, that member has 30 days to appeal the decision. In the absence of a successful appeal, the greatest penalty that can be imposed by USA Swimming is suspension for life from our membership. In that case, the individual is added to the Suspended for Life list, which has been made public on our website.
Investigations, hearings and appeals take time but it is this thoroughness that protects the integrity of the process. I recognize that making this phone call (or filling out the web complaint form) can be intimidating, and I truly appreciate those who are willing to come forward and report.
We know you cannot speak about specific cases, but a former USA Swimming employee is now undergoing the review process after USA Swimming received an official complaint alleging inappropriate communication occurring on Facebook.
Do you think the program is working when a case such as this has happened? Should the allegations be proven, a case could be made that at a predator was caught before actually physically preying on a target. However, a case could also be made that USA Swimming did not have a strong enough screening process itself if a predator gained employment with USA Swimming in the first place.
It is true that I cannot comment on specifics, but I think the program is absolutely appropriate. First, all USA Swimming employees are required to be members, and as such, undergo the same background checks and are subject to the same review system. Violations of Code of Conduct, regardless of whom the individual is or what their standing is within the organization, will not be tolerated.
You touch on an important topic regarding inappropriate conduct outside an actual physical offense. We have seen complaints involving inappropriate text messaging or other communication, and to me, this is a very positive indicator of the raised awareness among our membership. People are identifying inappropriate behavior before it escalates to actual physical or sexual abuse. This is a sign of an empowered, educated community. Our education program will go a step further in raising this sort of awareness and encouraging our membership to identify and prevent inappropriate activity.
Since you cannot speak about any specific case, can you explain how the process to investigate a current USA Swimming employee would work? It has to require a full buy in from USA Swimming to make it work, or else it might turn into resentment toward an internal affairs or internal auditing agency.
Employment decisions are not subject to a review process. However, since all USA Swimming employees are also members of the organization, employees are also subject to the same membership review procedure I described earlier.
Outside of being the "police officer" in this process, with an independent National Board of Review serving as the judge, what other resources do you and USA Swimming offer to the USA Swimming membership?
USA Swimming offers clear policies and guidelines, which are in place to protect all of our members; a comprehensive background-check program; pre-employment screening information and resources through outside vendors for all clubs; and a state-of-the-art athlete protection education program.
Personally, I see my role as being an advocate for safe sport and resource for all of our members and clubs. Being able to facilitate this program in an effort to provide a safe environment for hundreds of thousands of kids is something that I treasure and take to heart. As a competitive swimmer myself, I know what a positive impact this sport can have, and I am honored to be a part of helping kids across the nation a similar experience.
The Athlete Protection structure has now been built, but it still requires an "official complaint" before it is activated. You aren't constantly on the search to attempt "To Catch a Predator." Do you believe that USA Swimming could take a more proactive role, and if so, what would it take to be able to do so?
I am proud to say that we have the flagship athlete protection program for all Olympic sports. Our policies and guidelines, education program, screening tools and reporting structure are in place to protect all members. With athletes as the top priority, we also work to provide effective tools and a thorough and fair review process for our clubs and non-athlete members.
Our partners in this effort are the local clubs who hire and supervise their employees, and who need to apply our athlete protection programming on their decks across the nation.
You are only one person, although backed by a multi-million dollar organization. What do you need from the membership to help in your mission to increase Athlete Protection initiatives within USA Swimming?
It is everyone's role to advocate for safe sport. As people who love the sport and support the 300,000 kids who participate, we must all be the eyes and ears of this program. We must all understand the importance of safe sport environments and do our part to build those environments. Our clubs need to use the tools we provide them to create safe environments on their decks, and our members must report Code of Conduct violations whenever they occur.
Let's talk about the banned list. Can you explain the feedback you have received about it? Also, can you explain exactly why the media is not informed when someone is added to the list?
The "Suspended for Life" list has been met with a positive reaction. We are the only National Governing Body that has made our list public for anyone to review whenever he or she wishes. The list is not a publicity tool, which is why we don't promote it in the media. One of the guiding principles of our athlete protection program is to share our best practices, programming and knowledge with other youth organizations. This list serves as a resource for that community – as a reference both for swim clubs and other youth organizations.
What do you see is in the works for Athlete Protection? What can members expect in the short to long-term?
The most exciting short-term program item is the online education program I spoke about earlier, which will launch on September 15 and a customized athlete / parent education program that will follow on its heels. These programs will ultimately provide additional athlete protection education to our 300,000 members at no cost. Going forward, we are committed to regular evaluation of our efforts, through our Athlete Protection Committee, which is in place to keep our programming as effective as it can be.
What are your goals, and what do you view as your mission in Athlete Protection. What do you believe is the most important cog in the entire Athlete Protection structure?
My mission is to be an advocate for our swimmers and to continue to evaluate and refine our programming so that USA Swimming can remain a leader in the field of athlete protection. As you know, I swam competitively beginning in my youth all the way through college, so to be able to fill this role in a sport that has made such a positive impact on my life is something I am proud to do. I enjoy working on the programming that can ultimately help provide the benefits of swimming to so many kids across the nation. We will continue to be diligent in our investigations, programming and protection of our athletes. Creating a safe and healthy environment for our swimmers is the most important mission for me and for USA Swimming.