USA Swimming Rebranding Athlete Protection to Safe Sport; Exclusive Interview With Director of Safe Sport Susan Woessner

PHOENIX, Arizona, February 9. TOMORROW, USA Swimming will be officially rebranding its Athlete Protection office into Safe Sport. The decision was made as USA Swimming's initiatives to protect athletes have expanded to include the entire membership as well as affiliated non-members, and not just a system to protect athletes. It also is in place to protect other members within the organization.

Swimming World spoke exclusively with Director of Safe Sport Susan Woessner on the eve of the new change within USA Swimming.

Can you explain the reasoning behind rebranding Athlete Protection to Safe Sport? What were some of the items you focused on during your presentation to request the change?

There are three main motivations behind the name change from Athlete Protection to Safe Sport. First, it's proactive. "Safe Sport" is positive and consistent with the overall goal of the program: to provide a safe healthy, fun sport environment for all of our members through a proactive and preventative approach. Second, it's inclusive. It is a goal of USA Swimming's program to serve and protect our entire membership, including our athlete members. The "Safe Sport" name allows us to emphasize that the protection of children is our top priority without excluding other members. Finally, it's consistent with the abuse prevention movement currently going on in the Olympic community. The USOC launched its Safe Sport initiative in 2011, after USA Swimming's Athlete Protection Program launch in 2010. We expect more NGBs to create internal safe sport programs and fall in line with USOC nomenclature. Shifting USA Swimming's program to language consistent with the rest of the Olympic movement reinforces the fact that we are working as a united front against abuse in sport.

What type of foundation do you believe Athlete Protection has given the launch of the Safe Sport initiative?

USA Swimming's Safe Sport program is the flagship abuse prevention program in Olympic sport. We have developed a framework based on efforts in each of six different areas: Polices & Guidelines, Screening & Selection, Training & Education, Monitoring & Supervision, Recognizing, Reporting, & Responding, and Engagement & Feedback. As we continue our efforts we will develop programming in each of these areas to ensure we have a balanced and aggressive approach to abuse prevention.

While we know you can't speak specifically to the Bryan Woodward case, can you explain in general terms the process Safe Sport goes through when a member is arrested for a code of conduct violation, then what happens when a conviction occurs?

The Code of Conduct provides that the "conviction of, imposition of a deferred sentence for, or any plea of guilty or no contest at any time, past or present, or the existence of any pending charges, for (i) any felony, (ii) any offense involving use, possession, distribution or intent to distribute illegal drugs or substances, (iii) any crime involving sexual misconduct, or (iv) any criminal offense against a minor" is a violation, so we do not necessarily need to wait for a conviction to take action against a member. When we are notified of an arrest, we make contact with local law enforcement to verify the report. At that point, we request an Emergency Board of Review to suspend the member pending a full hearing before the National Board of Review.

Do you believe this process saves USA Swimming resources (both time and money) by not running an independent and concurrent investigation alongside the authorities, or can you answer the critics that believe that USA Swimming should take immediate aggressive action after an arrest by launching its own investigation that can lead to an arrestee being added to the Banned for Life list?

When an arrest has occurred, USA Swimming can take immediate action and initiate our process without waiting for further police action.

It is a policy of the Safe Sport program that when a crime against a minor is reported to us, we report to the local law enforcement in that area and encourage the individual who reported to us to do the same. At this point, we work closely with the police and provide any information that may aid in their investigation, and if charges are filed, we can go straight to our Emergency Board of Review process as described above.

We often will delay beginning our investigation until the police have concluded theirs. This is important, because while we can remove an offender from our sport, the police are able to take that individual off the streets, thereby protecting kids in all sports. Also, at the preference to the police, we don't want to tip off an offender if it could hinder the police process in any way, and we have had law enforcement thank us for this sensitivity. That said, if at any point the police inform us that they are not continuing with their investigation, we immediately initiate our investigative and National Board of Review process. It's important to note here that USA Swimming does not require a conviction in order to take action.

What happens when you have an investigation that does not develop enough evidence to lead to being banned? Is there a time limit on how long you can keep an investigation open?

This is a great question that really illustrates why it is so important for our members to report any red flag or suspicious behavior – sometimes these can be like putting a puzzle together with a lot of different people holding the pieces. We recognize that reporting behavior can be a difficult thing to do, but we encourage everyone to come forward. We are required by the Amateur Sports Act, the federal legislation that created NGBs, to provide due process to any accused individual before taking action. We can do a lot with a little bit of information, but we can't do anything with no information.

Unfortunately there are times when an investigation does not uncover enough evidence to move to a National Board of Review. At that point we may close that investigation. If new information comes to us, we would reopen the investigation and move forward from there. There is no statute of limitations at USA Swimming.

While most questions about the investigation process surround how Safe Sport goes about investigating a coach, what happens when an investigation has been closed but someone continues to file official complaints? In the legal system, this is typically seen as legal harassment. How does Safe Sport handle these types of situations?

We haven't had this situation occur at this point, but I'm happy to address how it would be handled. If an investigation has been completed and there is not enough evidence found to support that a Code of Conduct violation occurred, USA Swimming would not request a National Board of Review in its name. However, our rules allow that the original complainant can bring the case on their own behalf and we will convene the NBOR for them to do so.

If an investigation is closed and new information comes to us on the original allegation or that supports a new allegation, we would reopen the investigation at that point and start the process over.

Your investigations have been focused on sexual abuse issues for the most part. How does Safe Sport handle other types of code of conduct violation allegations such as physical or mental abuse?

In addition to sexual misconduct, our Code of Conduct addresses, among other things, bullying, physical abuse, mental abuse, drug possession and distribution, providing alcohol to minors, and discrimination. Any allegation of these offenses would be handled in the same way as prescribed by the USA Swimming rulebook that sexual misconduct complaints are handled.

What have been some of the major changes to Safe Sport, other than the rebranding, since we last spoke publicly in September?

We launched mandatory education programming for all non-athlete members, and to date, over 26,000 have completed the online courses. The programming was created by Praesidium, the leader in the field on child protection education, and we are thrilled to have partnered with such an authority on the topic. Additionally, later this spring we will launch online education for all of our members and their parents. While this free service is not required, we will encourage everyone to empower themselves with this important knowledge. We continue to believe that education is the cornerstone of our programming, and that is why we committed to providing this service.

We also have added a full-time Athlete Protection Coordinator, Liz Hoendervoogt, who brings a great deal of experience, expertise and perspective to our efforts.

What has Liz Hoendervoogt brought to the table?

Liz is a great addition to the team. Her experience as a case worker in the sexual abuse unit at the El Paso County Department of Human Services enabled her to jump right in with a minimal learning curve. She has a great deal of experience helping victims in very difficult situations, and does so with sensitivity, efficiency and composure. She brings a new perspective to our existing efforts and can share tools and methods she used in her previous work. She has a contagious energy and enthusiasm and brings such a positive approach to very difficult work.

How has the mandatory education program been going since it launched in September ?

Our free, online education program has been very well-received since it launched in September. All non-athletes members, including volunteers who are members of USA Swimming, are required to take the course per legislation passed at September 2010. We have had over 26,000 non-athlete members complete the course and we have had overwhelmingly positive feedback. We are extremely proud of that effort and we are looking forward to launching the second phase of our education program – free resources for parents and athletes in the first half of 2012.

One item that has continually been brought up as a way to better the Safe Sport initiative is to implement a no one-on-one policy where coaches and athletes are not allowed to be anywhere by themselves. The reasoning is that both the athlete and the coach are protected with this type of a policy, as the athlete would then never be in a position to be victimized, and a coach would never be in a position to have a false accusation without a witness. Can you explain why this policy is not in place, and what it would take to get the policy implemented into the code of conduct?

Two-deep leadership is not currently required as a hard and fast rule by our Code of Conduct. However it is addressed by the Athlete Protection Best Practices in three different ways:

2. All swimming practices should be open to observation by parents.

3. Two-deep Leadership: One coach member and at least one other adult who is not in the water should be present at all practices and other sanctioned club activities whenever at least one athlete is present. Clubs and coaches should evaluate their seasonal plans and map out how to best accomplish this strongly recommended guideline.

4. Open and Observable Environment: An open and observable environment should be maintained for all interactions between adults and athletes. Private, or one-on-one situations, should be avoided unless they are open and observable. Common sense should be used to move a meeting to an open and observable location if the meeting inadvertently begins in private.

In order for it to get passed as measure in the USA Swimming Code of Conduct, it would need to be proposed to the Rules and Regulations Committee and voted on by the House of Delegates at the annual convention.

As the chief person in charge of processing these types of complaints, you don't really get to deal with much positive or life-affirming content on a daily basis. What have you done to help keep your balance, and not let this type of work drag you down?

It is definitely hard work, but I love my job. I believe in the work we are doing and it feels great to give a little bit back to the sport that was so generous in my life. In the last year, I've realized that I do have to find balance outside the office. It's funny, one of the things that helped me get separation between Swimming and the rest of my life was actually, swimming. I haven't been in the water since 2004 and last summer, I started swimming again with the Masters team locally. It helped me remember why I loved this sport and why I feel so strongly about the community in the first place.