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Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)


HAZEL GREEN, Wis. - When Karen Wiederholt hires an employee at Hazel Green Gymnastics Club, she always performs a background check. She attends classes and supervises her staff with an attentive eye.

Wiederholt said gymnastics offers children a chance to have fun. But the recent criminal trial of Larry Nassar has unfortunately cast the sport in a poor light.

Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and Michigan State University physician, has been accused by more than 200 people of sexually abusing them under the guise of medical treatment.

He was convicted of possession of child pornography and criminal sexual conduct with minors. Nassar has been sentenced to lengthy prison terms and likely will spend the remainder of his life behind bars.

The case has brought heightened attention to the weaknesses of procedures for reporting sexual assault in major athletic institutions. Administrators at colleges and schools within the tri-state region said the incident highlights the importance of protections already in place.

Southwest Wisconsin school districts, including Platteville, are among the few that offer competitive gymnastics programs.

"We do criminal background checks, not only on our employees, but also our volunteers," said school Superintendent Connie Valenza.

The district trains staff to recognize and report sexual abuse, a requirement under Title IX. Employees who are considered mandatory reporters must report instances of sex discrimination or sexual harassment.

"We do some training of our students as well in terms of what is appropriate behavior and what's not and what is something that should be reported & regardless of who the perpetrator is," Valenza said. "For example, a parent or a coach."

At the collegiate level, complaints of sexual harassment or abuse are handled outside the athletic department with the institution's Title IX coordinator, said Dan Runkle, University of Dubuque director of athletics.

"I think a big mistake that can be made is if (officials try to handle the case) within the athletic department," he said.

Like Platteville and Hazel Green Gymnastics Club, coaches and volunteers who work with students - even current athletes and alumni - undergo background checks.

Representatives from the Dubuque Soccer Club and Loras College All-Sports Camp could not be reached for comment.

However, institutional procedures like background checks are only as useful as their ability to detect sexual perpetrators, who are unlikely to have criminal records.

"Most perpetrators really do a great job of really infiltrating themselves into areas where children congregate," said Joey Taylor, executive director of Riverview Center in Dubuque. "They do it very legally because they can."

Riverview staff serve counties in northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois and provide free services for those who have been victimized by sexual violence.

Sexual offenders are likely to have close relationships with their victims, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the sexual assaults of juveniles 17 years old and younger, research indicated that 34 percent of offenders were family members and 59 percent were acquaintances. Only 7 percent of offenders were strangers.

"Yes, there needs to be more done. There needs to be a better reporting structure," Karen Taylor said.

A proposal in Congress would require amateur athletics governing bodies to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement or a child-welfare agency . The bill has the support of U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Iowa Republicans.

But most importantly, adults should believe children when they say they were abused, Taylor said.

Wiederholt agreed.

"I don't think too many kids lie about something like that because it's really embarrassing," she said. "Where would they even come up with that idea?"

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February 5, 2018


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