Earlier this year, the industry was shocked to learn the outcome of a lawsuit involving child sexual abuse: A jury awarded a boy $10 million — $7 million of which must come from the venue, the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center of Pasadena, Calif.
The family said that the child suffered several incidents of abuse over an approximately six-month period at the hands of an adult patron, who fled the country after the center was made aware of the accusations.
The jury agreed with the family of the child, who was 11 years old at the time of the incidents. They determined that the center held 70% responsibility because the parents had entrusted it with the care of their child. Additionally, the family accused the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center of negligence, saying its lifeguards sensed something about the accused perpetrator and failed to report, as mandated by California law. Additionally, the family said that, while the center clearly took great care to protect visitors from drowning incidents, it was unprepared to handle child sexual abuse. Lifeguards weren’t trained to report suspicious behavior, they said, and certain areas of the spacious facility such as the spa, locker rooms and family changing areas went largely unsupervised.
It should be said that the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center didn’t agree with the plaintiffs’ assessment about its own performance and that it believes the perpetrator, whether it is the accused man or not, should be held responsible for his own crime. It is considering an appeal. Officials also said they will review the center's practices.
But the case still sends a message to the industry, one that risk-management company The Redwoods Group heard loud and clear. After learning about the lawsuit amid the backdrop of other high-profile cases such as that involving USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, it recently produced a hand-out providing tips on how to prevent childhood sexual abuse from occurring at a facility, whether committed by an adult patron or staff member.
“I would say [the Rose Bowl case] is definitely a sign of things to come,” says John Feasel, corporate counsel for the Morrisville, N.C.-based firm. “Over time we’ve seen that society is becoming less and less tolerant of what they consider to be organization failures that lead to childhood sexual abuse.”
And with statistics indicating that one in 10 children will experience sexual abuse, Feasel believes that protecting against such incidents should stand as high on the priority list as drowning prevention.
“One’s not No. 1, and one’s not No. 2 — they are both at the top of the facility safety protocol,” he says.
Preventing these traumatic incidents from occurring at your aquatics facility requires vigilance in multiple disciplines, including design, operations and training. Here, experts discuss how.
Not surprisingly, a key imperative to protecting children is enabling the staff to monitor them. At least as important, you want to impress upon potential predators that they can be seen at all times.
In the Rose Bowl case, the plaintiffs claim that the spa, locker rooms and family changing areas went largely unsupervised. During the process of designing a center, address line-of-sight issues.
Many designers already are doing this for the sake of efficiency, says Kevin Post, principal and director of aquatic operations at aquatics designer and consulting firm Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis.
This means that newer centers tend to place a main desk or counter within view of everything, so the staff manning the desk can see who is coming and going, and who they are associating with.
Locker rooms and family changing areas should be designed and positioned to maintain a balance, allowing for privacy but not seclusion. “You want to provide a certain level of privacy in a locker room, but you also don’t want to provide areas that are unsafe,” says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in Avalon, Calif.
For instance, you may want to avoid outfitting family changing rooms with full doors that go all the way to the floor. This way, bystanders could better detect violence or if a child is in there with an unrelated adult. Curtains could serve the same purpose, as can frosted glass, which shows shapes but not too much detail, says Shawn DeRosa, principal of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting in State College, Pa.
Designers also can lump together a bank of family changing rooms and treat them like changing rooms in a retail store, with a front counter or, at least, a common area leading to the individual stalls.
With new facilities, some owners even opt against common locker rooms altogether, Post says, specifying a number of family changing rooms instead. “If a child is in a locked-door [room] by themselves, at that point they’re safe,” he says.
Consider placing cameras around the doors leading in and out of locker rooms so you can see who is coming and going — and you have a record if you need it.
“When an offender knows that they will be captured on video going in or going out, I do think that operates as a deterrent,” DeRosa says.
While newer design has eschewed long hallways and remote or secluded spaces, older facilities may be stuck with them for now. Managers can compensate for this operationally. Besides installing cameras, management can require a key to access restrooms, family changing rooms and locker rooms. This allows staff to keep tabs on who is using the spaces, and it forces people to interact. Child predators want to go undetected, so this could serve as a deterrent.
If locker rooms in an existing center fall out of the main lines of sight, arrange for frequent visits by staff. If possible, consider full-time attendants. Otherwise, arrange for staff to take walk-throughs as a regular part of their duties. “It doesn’t have to be locker-room attendants — it could be housekeeping staff stationed inside the locker rooms,” Osinski says.
But this solution must account for gender, she adds: You can’t just assign one male staffer to watch the locker rooms for hours on end, because then the female locker rooms will go unmonitored.
Setting the rules
Protecting the children on site also requires finding out what rules apply to you and establishing certain policies that will help manage suspicious guests and standardize care and supervision of children.
First, if you don’t know whether your state requires your staff to report incidents and suspicious activity to the authorities, drop what you’re doing and find out. Not only can this protect the children in your care, but it will ensure that the center adheres to the law. Reporting requirements are generally established by the state, so checking there should suffice.
Next, define what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior by adults toward children. These guidelines would apply to both staff and adult patrons interacting with unrelated children.
The Redwoods Group recommends that its clients prohibit four behaviors: inappropriate touching, such as tickling or placing the child on the adult’s lap; outside contact, meaning the grown-up connects with the child outside the aquatics center, even if via social media; being alone with the child, especially in a more remote area; and showing favoritism to particular kids.
“You almost never catch an abuser actually abusing a child, but you catch them breaking rules,” Feasel says. “You catch them grooming the child, you catch them exhibiting very suspicious behavior around the child and trying to get the child in secluded, secretive spots.”
If staff sees this behavior from an adult patron or coworker, they should report it to their supervisors. Management can then decide how to respond. This can prove touchy: You don’t want to falsely accuse somebody of such a horrible crime, but you also need to protect your charges, says Gregory Anderson, senior partner of AndersonGlenn in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Sometimes managers or supervisors choose to engage with the person exhibiting suspicious behavior. This lets them know they have appeared on the radar. You can start, Anderson says, by asking if they’re somehow related to the child or children they’re currently interacting with. If an adult is swimming around children with goggles on, you can ask if they’re coaching the children, he says.
If it comes to it, you may need to explain to the patron the ground rules for appropriate behavior, Feasel says. You may even need to ask them to relocate to another part of the pool. Of course, if they don’t cooperate, you may need to ask them to leave.
If you choose to report suspicious behavior to authorities, exercise the same caution and delicacy. Do not label the person, say they were grooming a child or make any such accusations, Anderson says. Just describe the behavior in detail. “That way you’re not saying, ‘That person is a pedophile,’” he says. “You’re saying, ‘We’ve told this guy three times [to stop a behavior].’”
Facilities also should establish rules saying where children should be picked up after swim lessons or practice, Osinski says. When one class or session lets out, coaches and instructors often have to prepare for the next, so they generally don’t have time to watch the children as they leave.
State that either the parent must pick up the child right away, or the children must go to a designated area. Osinski suggests a lobby or other space where staff will naturally be on hand.
Finally, management should provide and mandate training that teaches staff what constitutes suspicious behavior and what they should do if they detect it.
Just as surely as you want to build muscle memory in the case of a drowning incident, lifeguards and other staff should know exactly what to do. So provide detailed instructions.
This can become especially challenging, as childhood sexual abuse is such a taboo subject. The key is to create an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about it and communicating with management. Firstly of all, explain to staff that reporting suspicious behavior is not the same as accusing a person of child sexual abuse. This could help with any hesitation that lifeguards, especially younger ones, could show.
But also make sure to discuss this subject frequently, so that it becomes part of the vocabulary, says Melanie Cardella, manager of learning and production for The Redwoods Group.
“This should be a topic of conversation regularly at staff meetings,” she says. “This should be something that is a very well-known topic and something that they discuss regularly so that they know what they’re aware of and they know their clear expectations.”