Coaches are a lot of things — the person who inspires you, who drives you, who gets doused with Gatorade after the winning game.
They’re adults who often spend the most time outside of school hours with our kids, besides parents. But there’s one thing coaches are not — mandatory reporters.
They’re not required to take child abuse suspicions or information up the chain, nor are they trained routinely about what abuse looks like.
The misperception comes from the fact that teachers are mandatory reporters and that many coaches are also teachers. But many aren’t.
A new program by the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center aims to change the game.
In February the center sponsored the first seminars at Traverse City Central High School for coaches, addressing recognizing and dealing with sexual abuse, and how to communicate to teams that safety is their number one concern.
The idea came from parent Jen Dutmers, who has seen both sides of the influence of coaches on children, as she was a high school athlete. She also learned later in life that several of her high school club volleyball teammates had been sexually abused by their coach.
The horrific shock and subsequent self questioning prompted her to act, she said. Coaches have both access and influence over children. Enlisting them in prevention efforts seemed like a no-brainer, especially given the lack of mandatory reporting education.
“(Coaches) have influence over an incredible number of kids and that is why we started with the athletic department,” Dutmers said. “They have these kids captive and can be a huge influence and support system for these kids.”
Education and conversation within these ranks will have the double impact of both enlisting more soldiers in the fight against child sex abuse, and also teaching influential people where the lines are, what good communication looks like and how to protect themselves in this environment.
We as a community are learning, too. Frank, shame-free conversations are changing our expectations of how we think abusers and abused should act, and what we think they should do.
We are learning about the severe impacts that adverse childhood experiences can have, and how they come to manifest themselves later in life. We are learning how many carry around hidden pain.
Sexual abuse of children is not a new problem and by no means is the practice confined to sports coaches. We see this everywhere adults and children mix, and while it seems easier to vilify a vocation, most abuse occurs in the home.
But talking about it — in frank, not hushed tones — seems to be working.
For a while, the scoreboard will seem counterintuitive as in the short- and medium- term, we may see rising numbers of reports.
It may look like losing but it’s how trust, safety and understanding is built. We face adversity head-on and figure out our best countermoves — together.
Like a team.
And it’s only after practice, drills, and the driving inspiration that comes of believing a better way can and should exist for our kids and the abused adults in our midst, that we’ll see the numbers begin to fall.
Because the last thing we want to do is alienate the people who volunteer their time to teach these valuable lessons to our kids learned on the field, pitch, court, diamond and lane.
“Sports can be a really empowering thing for kids, it can be a life-changer,” Dutmers said. Her two teenagers play sports.
“These coaches can be life-changers, too.”
Editor's Note: This editorial was updated 04/08/2019 to reflect a corrected designation to a "high school club" sport.