Larry Nassar became a household name in the wake of the USA Gymnastics scandal that erupted in 2018. Over 150 athletes testified in court about his sexual abuse, exposing an organization that treated their athletes poorly, regularly subjecting them to physical and emotional abuse. Additionally, USA Gymnastics failed to investigate past complaints they had received against Larry Nassar and other individuals who contributed to the abuse they faced.
A tolerant culture of poor treatment can have lasting effects on our youth. In this case, a poor culture silenced a lot of the victims, teaching them that poor treatment was to be expected from their trainers. Producer of Athlete A and former gymnast Jennifer Sey, said, “If you have been starving yourself, and you feel really hungry, and you’re 18, and you’ve yet to menstruate because your body fat is so low, but you’re told every day that you’re a fat pig, you don’t trust your own perception of the world. And if you’re then subjected to abusive treatment by a respected doctor, you’re more likely to accept that treatment, even if you think there might be something wrong or off about it.”
Just a few weeks ago, a guest ballet instructor in Arizona was arrested after a 16-year-old student reported a sexual assault. The suspect reportedly admitted to detectives that sexual contact had occurred, and the victim, fearful of the situation and of threats made by the instructor, came forward after being approached by other chaperones with rumors of her involvement with the instructor.
No child is completely safe from harm, even in places like our dance institutions, where many children find a home away from home. Scandals are plenty when we hear of Olympic coaches taking advantage of athletes on a regular basis, whistleblowers’ complaints being ignored or brushed under the rug, and more.
Luckily, as a result of the Larry Nassar trial, the Safe Sport Authorization Act passed in 2018, creating a centralized body to investigate complaints arising from any sport in the Olympics. This was a huge milestone in being accountable to today’s youth, and luckily, we have something like this for the dance world as well.
Much of the dance world is decentralized; it may seem hopeless if organizations such as the Olympics can’t properly investigate their athletes’ complaints. That’s where this milestone organization, Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD), comes in for dance teachers, competition directors, studio owners, and more.
YPAD provides education and resources to ensure happy, healthy dancers of all ages and genders. They include social media safety, abuse awareness and prevention, emergency preparedness, as well as developmentally appropriate artistry, and more in their training. They open conversations about what is and isn’t appropriate in settings both students and educators alike may find themselves in, and what behaviors should not be tolerated by industry professionals.
An individual can elect to go through the training required to be YPAD certified, as can organizations. This means all staff have passed a background check, are CPR/first aid certified, went through YPAD’s curriculum, and have agreed to qualify as mandated reporters. They even have free courses and webinars to start the conversation on safe best practices, and how to best protect our dancing youth. Their Sexual Abuse Awareness, Prevention, and Response course has 15 modules outlining warning signs, they bring in subject matter experts in the field of abuse response, and what to do if an individual suspects or receives a report of abuse.
Evidence-based research is the foundation for the best practices outlined by YPAD, and certification avails individuals to an online forum with over 2,000 other YPAD-certified professionals. It’s more than just educating professionals; it’s about creating a culture of awareness, high standards, and preparedness. Much of their training includes similar training to what foster parents around the country need to go through to become certified.
The exposure of Nassar’s behavior helped start changing an organization as established as the Olympics. If a program like YPAD had existed within the Olympic training team, it’s possible warning signs of abuse, a zero tolerance policy on abusive behavior, knowledge on what behaviors are and are not appropriate, and known access to resources should someone recognize they or someone else is in trouble. Simply opening the discussion starts to change an organization, and luckily that’s just what YPAD does for our dancers.
YPAD is one of the first organizations of its kind to reach the size and recognition it has today. It has many strategic partnerships with top industry professionals, and this milestone in accountability is crucial to educate both dancers and educators alike, and equip us with the knowledge that’s so important to ensure a continued healthy learning environment.
Does training provide a guaranteed safe environment for our youth? Certainly not, but having other advocates trained to recognize the issues dancers may encounter can ensure a situation has a better chance of being properly handled. Additionally, if dancers know what YPAD-certified individuals are meant to do, it gives them more trusted resources should they ever need help. Even a background check can miss concerning events in an individual’s history, but YPAD certification starts the conversation and sets the precedent of a studio or organization culture and expectations when it comes to inappropriate behavior.
We owe ourselves and our students these important discussions. We owe it to those who entrust their well-being to educators to communicate exactly what we do and do not stand for in our community, and be the voice for the voiceless.