by Beth A. Block and Andrew J. Horner
Many people involved with youth sports programs don’t know what the Youth Safe Sports Act (YSSA) is, despite the fact that it’s almost two years old. This legislation is important for two reasons: First, it’s designed to keep our students safe from sexual predators, which is something we all want. Second, failure to comply with the law can result in severe consequences for martial arts school owners — even if the failure was merely one of ignorance and no actual assault occurred.
We’ll start with a brief review. Congress passed the YSSA in February 2018. The legislation was written in response to the abuse scandals that surrounded Jerry Sandusky (Penn State), Larry Nassar (USA Gymnastics) and Kristofer Bland (Pop Warner). The bill passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Donald Trump. With the enactment of this law, all businesses that teach, train or work with youth, as well as all employees within those businesses, became directly responsible for safeguarding children from assault.
Abuse of child athletes is a worldwide problem. Canadian authorities estimate that 2 percent to 8 percent of young athletes are victims of sexual abuse within the context of their sport, and American authorities give similar numbers. Childhelp, a nonprofit that works to prevent child abuse and help victims, estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of all young athletes have experienced sexual harassment in connection with their sport in situations that range from verbal harassment to physical abuse.
These numbers are staggering. They mean that, at a minimum, two of every 100 child athletes under age 18 have been sexually abused.
Kids who train at our schools may be victims of abuse even though the people who work in our studios are doing nothing wrong. Many young martial arts students also play soccer, basketball, football and other sports. Although we may scrupulously follow assault-prevention policies — no instructor is left alone with a student, no students are left by themselves and so on — we cannot control what happens when students are not in our care. Still, it’s our privilege and responsibility to protect our students, and we must be aware of the signs of abuse so we can report it, regardless of where it originated.
“When confronted by unjust threats, martial artist(s) will fight back with an absolute resolve,” the Taekwondo Bible says. “Fighting for a cause is the essence which differentiates between a common fighter and a warrior.”
Martial arts instructors are warriors. We teach our students to be warriors. However, most of those students haven’t reached that level yet. While they are under our instruction, we are their warriors. According to the YSSA, this is more than a responsibility; it’s a legal requirement.
What does the YSSA require of us? At its most basic level, the law states that we must enforce a standard of care to protect children. The frustrating part is that this standard is clearly defined only when it comes to student athletes competing across state lines or to athletic programs that feed into Olympic programs (which have even tougher standards). There has yet to be a court case that sets a precedent for what constitutes a reasonable standard of care for the daily operations of a martial arts school.
This article focuses on the standards that apply to studios that have kids competing across state lines. However, we recommend that all martial arts schools abide by the guidelines even if their students don’t compete. It may not be a legal matter, but we should view it as a moral duty.
Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Training lies at the heart of the new requirements. If you cannot recognize warning signs of child abuse, you cannot do anything to help the victims. Training will teach you how to recognize abused children, which children fit a victim profile and what signs indicate a child is being “groomed” by a predator.
There are many different training programs available through various legal and nonprofit entities. Some are less expensive on the front end but require a lengthier investment of time. Some include the cost of the training certificate, while others charge extra for it. Whichever option you choose, we recommend that you invest in a course that will provide you with proof of completion.
Most importantly, you must train not only yourself but also your instructors and even your volunteers. The new legislation requires that all adults over age 18 who interact with your athletes receive this training. The training prepares you and your team to be on the lookout for potential danger and protects your students. This applies to all studios.
The second requirement of the YSSA is the federal imposition of mandated reporting. This law does not apply to studios that don’t have athletes competing across state lines; however, many states have already made us mandated reporters. If your state law requires you to be a mandated reporter, the competition aspect makes no difference. You must follow your state’s requirements. If you don’t know which agency is the appropriate one in your location, I suggest searching for “abuse hotline” in your state. Then prominently post that phone number in your studio.
What does it mean to be a mandated reporter? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “an individual who holds a professional position … that requires him or her to report to the appropriate state agency cases of child abuse that he or she has reasonable cause to suspect.” We now will break that down.
Your professional position as a martial arts instructor makes you a mandated reporter under federal law. You therefore must report any cases of child abuse that you have a reasonable cause to suspect. The same rules apply to your employees and volunteers.
An important phrase to highlight is “reasonable cause to suspect.” You don’t wait to report until you have proof that the child has been abused. Your responsibility is to make the report to authorities and then leave the investigation to them.
The YSSA addresses your freedom from liability for making reports. This means that even if it turns out that there was no abuse and the person who was investigated is angry and wants to sue you, that person cannot. The law states, “An applicable entity shall not be liable for damages in any civil action for defamation, libel, slander or damage to reputation arising out of any action or communication … except any action in which an applicable entity acted with actual malice.”
In other words, you cannot be successfully sued for reporting suspected abuse unless you deliberately make a false claim with the intent of harming someone else. It’s your responsibility to report anything you see, anything a child tells you and anything you suspect, based on the training you’ve completed, to the appropriate agency in your state.
It’s important to understand what abuse is so you know what you’re required to report. The organization Childhelp says child abuse occurs “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child.” There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse.
One part of reasonable standard of care involves your job-screening process. After years of working with the martial arts industry, I feel confident in saying that 90 percent of studios hire current or former students as instructors. Often, we hire them as part-timers while they’re still in school and allow them to grow into instructor roles. We’ve known these individuals since they were kids, we reason, so we don’t need a background check. Besides, if they’re still under 18, what could a background check possibly tell us? Most of us also haven’t put together a formal job description and don’t keep notes from formal interviews. This, of course, is ill-advised.
Imagine that you’re on the witness stand in court. One of the children in your program has been molested by an instructor at your school. You’re reminded that an 18-year-old instructor having consensual sex with a 16-year-old student still constitutes statutory rape in many states and, thus, is child abuse.
The plaintiff’s attorney asks you to describe the process you used when hiring the accused molester. You answer that you hired your student without any background screening or objective job standards.
Next, the plaintiff’s attorney asks what your work policies state regarding abuse, what they state regarding one-on-one time with students, what your social media policies state regarding instructor interaction with students and what training you provided to your instructors to prevent problems. How will you answer these questions? The time to prepare is now, not after your unwanted day in court.
Many of the training programs available for you and your team also provide background-screening services, sample job-description forms, sample interview-documentation forms and sample policies for your team. These forms and policies are also available for volunteers through some services.
A word of warning: Background checks are often ineffective. That doesn’t mean you should not do the check, however. You still need to have evidence of one in the employee’s file. Just be aware that you cannot depend on a background check alone to protect your students and your business. One studio I know of ran a background check on a man (whom they went on to hire) but didn’t think to do a simple online search. After a student was abused, a Google query revealed that the man’s niece had accused him of molestation two years earlier. This did not play out well in court.
It’s best to be able to tell the plaintiff’s attorney all the procedures that you’ve implemented and followed. It’s also important to know what can happen if you don’t follow the requirements of the YSSA. You can be sued as a studio. Civil liability for abuse is nothing new in the martial arts world, but now we also can be held liable for criminal penalties. The YSSA is a federal law, and many state laws make us mandated reporters. Failure to report is a criminal matter.
Fifteen years ago, I watched a trio of instructors go to jail for failing to report sexual abuse that one student perpetrated on another. I mention this incident because it leads us to a discussion of what the YSSA has not addressed: Children abusing other children physically, mentally or sexually. The definition of child abuse given earlier in this article doesn’t apply to children abusing children. However, you should be equally prompt in reporting this kind of abuse. It’s no less damaging to the victim, and by reporting, you’re validating that you believe the child. You’re acting within your capacity as your student’s warrior role model.
Chances are you didn’t know there was a law placing these new responsibilities on you. Many of the law-enforcement officers in your state may not know about it either. Some instructors I’ve spoken with have talked to legal professionals who told them that they weren’t responsible for anything imposed by this law. Some people have told me they knew about the law but didn’t want to go to the effort to comply if there was no enforcement. Of course, none of this matters in court.
Ultimately, the question we all must ask ourselves is, “Will I be my students’ warrior?” No warrior is completely self-sufficient. We all need the backup of our support system. One easy first step you can take now is to learn how to talk to a child who’s been molested. According to Parents Protect!, the way adults respond to such situations is vital to ensuring the child’s safety. The recommendations are as follows: Believe the child, be supportive, stay calm, be caring, face the problem and re-establish safety.
For more information about this important legislation, Google “Youth Safe Sports Act.” Many experts have weighed in on the subject and the impact it’s having on the youth sports world. The text of the YSSA is also available online. Feel free to reach out to us if you have specific questions. Our email addresses are [email protected] and [email protected].
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