Against the backdrop of Larry Nassar and the worst sexual abuse scandal in sports history, local institutions are reviewing policies, and advocates are working to enact the culture shift they say is needed to protect the vulnerable from the powerful and perverse.
Acts of sexual assault or abuse are committed by individuals who are responsible for their actions, said Deborah Stoll, the director of the YWCA Northwest Ohio's rape crisis center. But institutions and businesses must create safe environments that support victims without rushing to judgment.
Ms. Stoll said the best thing people can do is listen to victims who come forward, victims who often must overcome a great deal of fear and anxiety before telling their stories.
“It takes a lot of courage to come forward,” Ms. Stoll said. “Fear can keep a victim quiet.”
Fear nearly kept Perrysburg Township resident Isabell Hutchins, 19, from coming forward to testify against Nassar. For more than 20 years, Nassar abused and assaulted gymnasts, including Ms. Hutchins, when they sought treatment for injuries at Twistars, a gymnastics club that was run by a 2012 U.S. Olympic coach. He also worked for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
But instead of hiding, Ms. Hutchins joined the scores of women who spoke out against her attacker in open court. Over the course of two weeks, more than 260 women either testified or submitted written statements about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Nassar, 54, a physician who was renowned for treating athletes at the sport’s highest levels.
Ms. Hutchins had been a gymnast most of her life, but only moved to Twistars USA when she was about 10 years old, and her talent became more than local coaches could develop. She met Nassar when she sought treatment for a hamstring injury. That treatment began years of abuse, though Ms. Hutchins did not realize Nassar’s actions were abusive because her fellow gymnasts said the same sorts of things had happened to them.
That started to change when Nassar ignored a broken leg for more than a month, Ms. Hutchins said.
“For over a month I practiced, competed, and made it to nationals on a broken leg because Larry Nassar said that there was nothing wrong,” she testified. “And we believed the child-molesting doctor over the child that was experiencing the pain.”
Nassar was eventually sentenced to more than 200 years in prison.
“It happened, and looking forward, how do we stop it from happening?” asked Lisa Hutchins, Isabell’s mother.
At various levels of athletics and academia, different institutions have different ways of trying to keep sexual assault from happening under their watch.
Combating sexual assault on college campuses has been a high-profile struggle for years, focused primarily on complying with Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guarantees equal access to educational opportunities among men and women.
Bowling Green State University hired Jennifer McCary in January to be its new Title IX coordinator, following a task force review of the university that wrapped up in August. The task force formed following protests about the university’s treatment of sexual assault survivors. She said her goal is to get Title IX enforcement out from a silo and spread across campus.
“What you’re trying to do is to change to a culture of prevention,” Ms. McCary said.
A bill expanding mandatory reporting to anyone who works within an amateur athletic program governed by the International Olympic Committee awaits President Trump’s signature.
It’s the sort of change Ms. Hutchins wants to see to help heal a sport she still loves.
“The sport is an amazing sport,” she said. “It's the political side of gymnastics that needs to take the wrath.”
The entire board of directors governing USA Gymnastics has resigned. The sport was already governed by Safe Sport guidelines that were revised after Nassar’s conviction, but Ms. Hutchins is unsure how closely they will be followed. She suggests having an outside third-party observing to ensure safety for gymnasts.
“If you have a coach go in and do it, they’re going to accept the culture as it is,” she said.
All Ohio school teachers and employees are already mandatory reporters, meaning any suspicion of sexual assault must be passed on to law enforcement.
“It is our responsibility to report that,” said James Gault, Toledo Public Schools Executive Transformational Leader of Curriculum and Instruction. “It’s the board’s responsibility to complete an investigation.”
The district’s policy extends to anyone who interacts with the district, including contractors and third parties who are on TPS property.
In Perrysburg, Superintendent Tom Hosler said no policy is useful unless everyone understands their responsibilities.
“It has to be something you’re continuing to put in front of your staff,” he said.
University of Toledo, like BGSU, was already reviewing policies about sexual assault prevention and reporting prior to Nassar’s wrongs coming to light. Many changes to UT’s policies came as a result of a sexual assault awareness task force that formed in April, 2017.
UT requires everyone on campus to take anti-sexual assault training, which aims to foster a culture of support and awareness. UT Vice President for Student Affairs Phillip “Flapp” Cockrell said he emphasizes bystander training to parents and students.
“Reporting is not a bad thing. Reporting is ensuring individuals are getting the assistance we need,” he said. “If you see something, hear something, you say something, or you know something you say something. Don't suffer in silence.”
As Nassar’s name fades from headlines, Ms. Hutchins will return to class at UT and a sense of normalcy, ready to take a step back from the spotlight that shined on her when she testified at Nassar’s court proceedings.
Ms. Hutchins is studying pre-med at UT, with the hope of becoming a sports medicine physician after completing medical school.
“He's put a bad name on physicians everywhere, and athletes probably all around the country are struggling,” she said. “What I was hoping to do was become a sports medicine physician and bring a good word back to the medical community, and be what he wasn't, be the doctor that he couldn't be.”
Any survivor of sexual assault, or a friend or family member of a survivor, can call the YWCA Rape Crisis Center at 419-241-7273 for free, confidential help.
Blade wire services contributed to this report.
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