Larry Nassar: Learning from Institutional Failures
“He was MSU’s golden boy. He was USAG’s golden boy. He was so loved in the community that I was very sure…I would be crucified and he would end up empowered to know that he couldn’t get caught.”
—Rachael Denhollander, Nassar's first public accuser
On Wednesday, January 23rd, Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years on multiple criminal sexual conduct charges. Over a 25-year period as a sports medicine doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, he sexually abused more than 150 adolescent girls.
We applaud the brave survivors who confronted Nassar's predatory behavior and shared their stories. The bravery of these women and girls is admirable and—for them—very painful. We also send our sympathy and our support to the victims, the families and the communities affected by these acts.
But our expressions of support are nowhere near enough. We must also recommit ourselves and our organizations to action.
An important piece of the story to understand is the cultural and institutional failures within USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University—failures that allowed the abuse to continue for over two decades. Some of those failures include:
- Complaints were ignored or discounted
- Victims were urged not to pursue complaints
- Abuse was allowed to occur, even as investigations were underway, and
- Victims were reluctant to come forward because of Nassar's reputation
Each of us can play a role to make sure our organizational culture does not tolerate inappropriate behavior. It can be the culture of your family, your neighborhood, your work, your religious institution or any other community you're part of.
- Implement a Code of Conduct. Set clear expectations about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors through a written Code of Conduct. Hold all staff, volunteers and even contractors accountable to this written policy. And publicize this Code of Conduct in your community, so that others can hold you accountable too.
- Do not wait for proof. You're not asked to make a judgment if abuse is happening. You're asked to report any suspicious or inappropriate behavior. Evaluate and remind your staff of your reporting protocols to ensure that they feel empowered to report any behavior that doesn't feel right.
- Provide multiple channels for reporting concerns. Typically, one male and one female are appointed to receive all reports. They are instructed to accept anonymous reports and document everything. Reports may be made via email, phone, or any other means available to your organization.
- Communicate regularly. Send emails, print flyers or find additional ways to communicate abuse prevention policies with your staff, volunteers, participants, partner organizations and also the wider community. When everyone knows their concerns will be listened to and acted upon—and when they understand that this is an organizational priority—abuse is less likely to happen in the first place, and less likely to go undetected if it does occur.
- Evaluate your culture. Part of what protected Nassar for so long was the incredibly competitive culture and focus in the USA and Michigan State Gymnastics programs—where girls and families felt like questioning him could jeopardize their career. Any organization can consider if their culture could, in a negative way, work to protect someone who is violating their Code of Conduct, and take proactive steps to address those challenges before something happens.
All Staff and Volunteers
- Model appropriate behaviors at all times. Avoid inappropriate physical contact or one-to-one interactions with children—whether or not your intentions are innocent.
- Learn the warning signs. Secret keeping, favoritism, gift giving, inappropriate touch, outside contact and alone time are just some of the things to look for.
- Report. Regardless of whether you have proof of abuse, make a report if you have any suspicions or if you see anyone breaking the rules.
- Listen to children. If a child reports something, act on it. If a child appears to be trying to tell you something, listen to them and believe them. Asking open-ended questions (for example "Has anyone asked you to keep secrets?” or “Is anyone being mean to you?”) can be a way to reveal facts they may be unable or unwilling to share.
- Be persistent. If you report concerns to a supervisor and they are not acted upon, then it is your responsibility to follow up with more senior management and/or an outside party as necessary.
These steps are by no means a comprehensive list, but provide an initial framework for how to prevent abuse at your organization.
We've included a few additional resources related to the Larry Nassar case that may be valuable as well. Thank you for all you do to protect your communities from abuse.
Nassar Case Resources
* The Larry Nassar Abuse Case—Full Timeline, Lessons & Recommendations
Abuse Prevention Resources
* The 5 Essential Elements of Every Abuse Prevention Plan
* Child Abuse Prevention Plan
* Protecting Against Sexual Predators
* Child Abuse Prevention Code of Conduct