It started out as a normal week in July. David Jones and Carlo Stowers were two young guys working off the summer at their hometown pool. They thought Edward Richard Larson was just another visitor at McKinley Park’s pool in Sacramento, Calif.
But by week’s end, Jones and Stowers found themselves under the microscope, and Larson had made an entire community question the safety of the local pool. It wasn’t a drowning or near drowning that rocked this facility. It was something aquatics professionals are much less prepared to deal with — a sex offense.
After a conversation with one boy raised suspicion, Jones and Stowers started to note Larson’s unusual behavior. “Every single day, [Larson] would just sit here,” Stowers, then a lifeguard, told reporters after the 2005 incident.
Soon a second boy came forward, telling then-assistant manager Jones how the same man had shown him pornography, according to reports. After that, Jones and Stowers informed law enforcement officials, who caught Larson in the pool’s restroom rubbing sunblock on a 12-year-old boy, which violated the terms of his probation as a registered sex offender. It was Larson’s second sexual offense with a minor.
Initially, Jones and Stowers were lauded as local heroes for unmasking Larson, who is currently serving a sentence for three counts of child molestation and felony annoyance. But not long after the arrest, fear set in and questions arose. Many residents stopped bringing their kids to the pool. Most were afraid another incident would happen. Some questioned whether Jones and Stowers had responded appropriately. If they and the facility had done enough to protect the children. Why did it take two boys coming forward for them to act?
That story and the concerns it raised likely sound uncomfortably familiar to many aquatics professionals. Among the numerous sources contacted for Aquatics International’s yearlong investigation, all had experienced encounters with sexual predators.
By those accounts, every commercial pool and waterpark is at risk of pedophiles. Statistics paint an equally grim picture. Nationally, one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually exploited before the age of 18, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. Even those numbers are artificially low because an estimated 69 percent of sexual offenses go unreported, the U.S. Department of Justice reports. What’s more, it estimates that 20 percent of the 566,000 registered sex offenders are “off the map,” or unaccounted for at any one time.
But chances are good that predators will turn up at aquatics facilities. With their abundance of unsupervised, partially clothed kids, pools and waterparks are prime targets for sex offenders, warn law enforcement officials. Despite that threat and professionals’ own apparent awareness of it, the industry is doing little to guard against these offenses, according to an Aquatics International survey. While 40 percent of respondents say they have personally encountered or had knowledge of a sex offender at their facilities, only 46 percent have had any training on the subject. Training that does occur comes from outside the industry nearly 70 percent of the time, the survey shows.
That may be because many professionals don’t see sex offenders as a major concern. Fifty-three percent of the survey respondents think predators pose only “somewhat of a threat,” while another 17 percent believe they are “no threat at all.” Part of the problem is that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of sex offenders, and feel ill-equipped to deal with them. The very notion of a sexual offense raises squeamish questions. What’s the difference between friendly interaction and inappropriate behavior? Is it an issue for lifeguards or law enforcement? What’s the role of parents?
But if the industry is truly going to offer children a safe haven, aquatics professionals must get past those questions and establish definitive answers for them, say professionals and law enforcement officials, many of whom have helped catch sex offenders at facilities.
“Some industry members are beginning to take a more proactive stance about it,” says Richard Dangel, Ph.D., president/CEO of Praesidium Inc. in Arlington, Texas. “But we think everybody needs to be doing that because nobody wants their child’s first sexual experience to take place in a locker room at a waterpark or public pool with a stranger.”
See no evil, hear no evil
For most people, the word “sex offender” conjures images of a shadowy figure lurking in alleyways under the cover of night. But the loner in the trench coat stereotype can be misleading. Most sex offenders look like everyone else and come in all shapes and sizes, which is why they’re so difficult to identify, according to experts.
“To say that people should be looking for a 6-foot guy with glazed eyes would be inaccurate,” says John Gillies, chief of the Violent Crimes Section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. “It could be the clean-cut guy who’s really the pedophile.”
Sometimes the perpetrator can be a trusted member of the community, as was the case of Joseph Habib. Last July, the 27-year-old firefighter was accused of groping four children during a game of football at a hotel swimming pool in Orlando, Fla. In a more notorious case, John Geoghan, the defrocked Roman Catholic priest, was sentenced to life imprisonment for more than 140 alleged sexual offenses. His first conviction came in January 2002 for molesting a boy in a pool a decade earlier.
To hear it from aquatics supervisors on the front lines, sexual predators are a persistent nuisance that comes with the territory — one nobody warns you about at the job interview.
“Over the course of a year, we expect to see several cases, though it depends on the season,” says Kathy Whitman, aquatics manager at Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Out of the 37 pools and nine beaches under her supervision, Whitman recalls at least 10 reported cases that occurred this year through August.
Dangel’s firm provides risk assessments for recreational facilities exposed to crimes of this nature. Over 20 years, Praesidium has assisted in more than 4,000 cases of abuse at youth-centered organizations, from waterparks and public pools to sport camps and churches. That’s roughly 200 cases per year.
“When we’ve done training at waterparks or pools, we’ve never had an audience where there weren’t multiple people who had already dealt with these types of incidents,” says Dangel, a psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexually abused children.
Too often, he says, organizations won’t seek out his services until a crime has already been committed. “Since there’s competition to pay attention to all the possible threats a program is at risk for, I think this one sometimes doesn’t get the level of attention that drowning does, for instance,” he says.
At the same time, few industry leaders seem willing to confront the elephant in the room or address the issue of sexual predators in a meaningful way, leaving local pool operators to fend for themselves or seek outside help.
“It doesn’t happen every day, which is probably why it hasn’t been included in our training,” says Farhad Madani, president of the Aquatic Branch of the National Recreation & Park Association.
Madani is also the assistant director of the Austin (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department and oversees 49 public pools, only one of which has had an incident in the past few years that he can recall. Nonetheless, he says, “Yes, I think there is an educational need out there. I strongly feel the education should come from the certification entities because there you have a captive audience.”
A review of instructional manuals from the industry’s top professional training and certification programs shows that most of the available information on the subject is either superficial in nature or simply nonexistent. NRPA includes no training in regard to sexual predators in either its Aquatic Facility Operator course or its National Aquatics Management School. The American Red Cross, which certifies more than 90 percent of the nation’s lifeguards, includes a brief section on “Pedophile Awareness” in its lifeguard management training. A more general section on violent behavior and uncooperative patrons is included in ARC’s basic level lifeguard training program.
Longtime aquatics professionals say more needs to be done. “I’ve been in aquatics for 20 years at various facilities, and we’ve always had issues like this come up in different venues. Every place I’ve worked, we had a couple of incidents with strange people lurking around,” says Teresa Rodriguez, aquatics service manager at the Herdon (Va.) Community Center. Her most recent experience was with a flasher who exposed himself through a window at her indoor pool. “Most people don’t want to touch the topic because they don’t feel comfortable talking about it. With our younger staff, it got to the point where they wouldn’t tell us about something until it had been going on for a couple of weeks.”
Of course, sex crimes are an uncomfortable subject, one that’s been swept under the rug for ages only to surface in the public consciousness in recent times. As awareness increases, so does the dearth of information about it. Like a bottomless pit, the more light experts shine on the subject, the more they realize how little they actually know about it.
An attractive nuisance
One thing they do know is that aquatics facilities are targets for pedophiles. That’s because aquatic environments create opportunities that make them twice as appealing as schools or the other usual haunts associated with these predators.
“There are a few conditions that put an aquatics programs at higher risk,” Dangel says. “One is the condition of nudity. What we tell our clients is that where there is water, there is increased risk because there’s a chance for partial or full nudity.”
Gerald Hover, EdD, a psychologist and clinical supervisor with the Washington State Department of Corrections, concurs: “I think what makes waterparks and pools attractive to a majority of citizens is that they get to have some fun while being nearly naked. When you think about it, there’s not much of a difference between a swimsuit and underwear.”
“For someone who is aroused by children, he gets to look around at nearly naked kids,” adds Hover, who helps rehabilitate sex offenders. “Then you’re wet and in locker rooms in various stage of undress. That can be provocative for some people.”
Dangel highlights a second condition that makes aquatics facilities particularly inviting. “Child molesters require anonymity because they don’t want to get caught,” he says. “They can get that by taking a child to a private area, like a locker room, or by being in a large crowd where no one knows them. What’s more crowded than a waterpark on a hot day?”
For that reason, Dangel’s group examines the physical layout of each aquatics facility when performing a risk assessment. The purpose is to expose remote and unsupervised areas — such as locker rooms or equipment and supply closets — that present potential risk factors due to the site’s ease of access and opportunity for secrecy.
Of course, many of these acts might be taking place right in plain sight. “In the past, we’ve had situations where an adult came to a public swim, but they weren’t there to swim laps,” Whitman reports. “They would just sit at one end of the pool with their goggles on and try to spot kids under the water whenever they’d get close.”
That’s just one example of behavior to watch for at a facility. “What lifeguards [and pool operators] should be on the lookout for is unusual behavior or something out of the ordinary,” says Detective Bob Shilling, who heads the Special Assault Unit of the Seattle Police Department. “For instance, if someone is taking too long in a locker room, or you see someone hanging around with a child who you know they’re not related to. There are all sorts of red flags.”
Some law enforcement agents say sexual predators exhibit a couple of common patterns and employ many similar ruses. For example, Shilling says there are two types of predators: those who are “hands-off” and interested in voyeurism, and those who are more “hands-on” and will try to get a child alone for the purpose of molesting them.
While the characteristics can vary, a Justice report suggests that 96 percent of sex offenders are male, though females also may pose a threat.
Like a pied piper, predators may use kindness to disguise their intentions and lure victims into their confidence — unlike other forms of violent offenders who demonstrate telltale signs of aggressiveness. “We call them grooming techniques,” Shilling says. “They will try to befriend a child or even an adult with a child by trying to appear helpful. They might offer to teach a child how to dive or get involved with games that kids are playing in the pool.”
Rodriguez recalls a case where a stranger showed up to a pool party at her facility handing out invitations to random children for another birthday party at a nearby McDonald’s the next day.
One of the most common forms of sexual offense is called frottage, where a predator will intentionally try to rub up against or bump into their victims without them noticing what just took place. For that reason, frottage also is the most difficult offense to prove. Experts warn that wave pools and lazy rivers provide ideal chances to commit frottage because the turbidity of the water makes it difficult to spot.
Modern technology, such as camera phones, is being used increasingly by predators. Whitman says she’s had many instances where people walk by one of her wading pools and snap a photo of a kid splashing around in the water. They also might try to take a quick picture of a child changing in the locker room. She worries that a child from one of her facilities could end up exploited in Internet pornography.
The lack of parental supervision at aquatics facilities makes abuse prevention and keeping an eye on children all the more difficult. Pool operators say that some parents try to use the local pool as a sort of day-care center when their kids are on summer break. Fully 76 percent of respondents in the Aquatics International survey say that minors attend their facilities unaccompanied by an adult or guardian either “very often” or “frequently.” However, at the same time, nearly 21 percent have no policy regarding minors attending their facilities unaccompanied by an adult.
Some facility managers have problems with their own city’s policies governing child attendance. Rodriguez says her pool allows children 8 and older to attend the center without a guardian present, something she hopes to change with her supervisor.
The dilemma of age requirements amounts to a Catch-22 between how to keep kids safe while promoting attendance. On one hand, operators need to encourage youngsters to swim, especially with so many facilities closing around the country due to declines in attendance. On the other hand, parents — even more than lifeguards — can play a vital role in supervision at a public pool, Whitman says.
Recognizing the risk that recreational facilities are up against, many states and municipalities are passing laws that create sex-offender-free zones around schools, public parks and swimming pools.
Commonly known as Jessica’s Law, the Jessica Lunsford Act is intended to mandate more stringent tracking of convicted sex offenders. Many state and local versions of the bill also create buffer zones between areas where kids commonly gather and places where sex offenders can live. Typically, these laws prevent previous offenders from living within 500 to 2,500 feet of a school or public park.
Since the Act was first passed in Florida in May 2005, many states and municipalities have expanded the language of their versions of Jessica’s Law to include pools. “Historically, we’ve had issues a couple of times a summer where known sex offenders were loitering around public swimming pools trying to talk to kids inappropriately,” says Rep. R. Shawn Tornow (R-Sioux Falls), the legislator behind South Dakota’s bill (HB-1066) that bars sex offenders from living within 500 feet of pools and public parks. “Parents and kids ought to have some comfort that those types of predators cannot loiter or live near these areas.”
To serve and protect
Even those laws aren’t enough, however, to completely deter sex offenders. That leaves lifeguards and managers as the last line of defense. But those who want additional training might have to take their cues from Whitman and Rodriguez. Both women have had to organize their own in-service training seminars with local law enforcement agencies and child abuse experts.
In Whitman’s case, she asked Detective Shilling and Hover to speak with her staff members on the subject of how to deal with sexual predators. Meanwhile, Rodriguez invited officials from the Fairfax County Police Department and ChildSafeNet Inc. to talk with her group.
Rodriguez and Whitman receive regular bulletins about potential threats in their areas from local police, which they share with their staffs. Usually, law enforcement agencies are happy to partner with civilian organizations to provide training free of charge, Schilling notes.
The important thing in any training is to start a dialogue that creates staff awareness of the issues and opens the channels of communication, according to Dangel. Staff members should feel safe approaching managers with potential problems, questions or suspects.
Aquatics facilities also need to have policies and standard operating procedures in place that will serve as deterrents to predators and minimize the risk that a sexual offense will be committed on the premises.
Instituting stricter supervision requirements is a good first step toward addressing the issue, according to law enforcement agencies.
Another approach might be to hang signs that ask parents to stay within arm’s reach of their children while on the premises, suggests Shawn DeRosa, an attorney and consultant with the Aquatics Safety Research Group, LLC, in State College, Pa. One pool in Edmonds, Wash., even prohibits patrons from bringing cell phones and video recording devices into locker rooms, according to Whitman.
Furthermore, Whitman’s facilities have a policy of documenting any incidents of strange behavior that occur at the pools. “We take notes assuming that we might end up in court someday,” says Whitman, whose lifeguards have testified in the past for incidents that occurred at one of Seattle’s pools. Her staff keeps the records on hand in what she calls “the red files.” That’s probably good advice considering the documents might be useful evidence in a criminal trial or potential civil lawsuit.
Dangel suggests that employees conduct regular sweeps of unmonitored areas similar to that of Whitman’s lifeguards, who perform walk-throughs of locker rooms after every 15-minute rotation. She’s also imposed time limits on how long someone is allowed to be in the locker rooms and tries to promote gender balance in her hiring so that the men’s and women’s bathrooms receive equal attention. She makes sure there’s at least one male and one female on duty at all times.
As mentioned earlier, it’s necessary to remove the layers of anonymity that sex offenders seek. To that effect, Madani says charging entry fees or asking guests to sign a log-in sheet at the door can provide a point of contact between your staff and a potential predator.
But even taking all of those precautions is no a guarantee an offense won’t be committed at your facility, Dangel warns. At the end of the day, constant vigilance and listening to patrons might be the best way to thwart sex offenders — and keep your facility safe.
“The best advice in all of this is to be the best witness you can be,” Detective Shilling says. “By being prepared for it and staying alert, you might save a child from a lifetime of suffering.”