Whitman crew updates “not fully compliant” communications policy

Whitman+crews+updated+communications+policy+has+taken+effect.+The+parent+board+acknowledged+that+the+previous+policy+was+%E2%80%9Cnot+fully+compliant%E2%80%9D+with+regulatory+standards.

Ethan Schenker

Whitman crew’s updated communications policy has taken effect. The parent board acknowledged that the previous policy was “not fully compliant” with regulatory standards.

By Ethan Schenker , Walt Whitman High School

When the Whitman crew team restarted training this winter, the team’s parent board required that rowers and their guardians sign an updated communications policy. The board acknowledged that the previous policy was “not fully compliant” with regulatory standards eight days before the August 24 arrest of head coach Kirkland Shipley on charges of sexual abuse.

The team’s communications policy now includes a requirement that a team-affiliated adult or legal guardian be copied on all communications between adult authority figures and minor athletes. The criminal complaint filed by DC’s Metropolitan Police Department characterizes texting as Shipley’s primary method of grooming female rowers. 

The new policy also specifies that communications from coaches to athletes be “professional in nature, open and transparent,” and “free of hidden meanings, innuendo and expectations.”  

The board also requires all athletes and one guardian per family — as well as board members, coaches and parent volunteers who interact with athletes — to complete an online training on abuse prevention. 

The parent board said in a November presentation to rowers’ guardians that they updated the communications policy “to fully comply” with requirements set by SafeSport, a nonprofit organization tasked with preventing and responding to abuse and misconduct in Olympic-affiliated sports organizations, like Whitman Crew. SafeSport exercises jurisdiction over all allegations of sexual misconduct that fall under the US SafeSport Code. The organization sets abuse-prevention policies that National Governing Bodies (NGBs) — groups like USRowing that oversee each sport’s teams and clubs — must in turn require their member organizations, like Whitman Crew, to implement. 

Since 2019, SafeSport’s Minor Athlete Abuse Protection Policy (MAAP) has mandated that a minor athlete’s legal guardian or another adult leader in the sport be copied on all one-on-one electronic communications between the athlete and an adult in a position of authority on the team. If a minor athlete initiates direct electronic contact with a coach or another adult authority figure, the recipient must copy another involved adult or legal guardian over the age of 18 when replying.

Before the updates to Whitman crew’s policies, the team’s most recent code of conduct, dated January 2016, prohibited rowers from engaging in “[electronic] social communication that could exclude, limit or otherwise impact the ability of the team to communicate with complete transparency.” The code of conduct prohibited explicit or derogatory communications and mandated that rowers use the “required social media tools that have been outlined by their coaches” for all team communications. At the same time, Whitman Crew’s most recent athlete expectations, which had been in place since 2018, stated that “communication is the athlete’s responsibility, not the parent’s responsibility.” 

However, as first reported by The Washington Post, the parent board sent an email to athletes and their families eight days before Shipley’s arrest explaining the findings of a “Culture Review” of the team that was conducted by an external human resources consulting firm the board hired. The parents summarized the firm’s observations of Shipley’s communication habits, writing that “some communications were perceived as unprofessional or overly personal in nature and did not meet the expectations of a coach.” 

Our team (athlete/coach) communication policies are not fully compliant with Safe Sport [sic] and need to be changed.”

— Whitman Crew's parent board in a document sent to team families on August 16, 2021

In the document attached to the August 16 email, the board outlined changes to the 2021-2022 crew program, which was then scheduled to begin as planned in the fall. The changes spanned three categories: “coach oversight and support,” “strengthening club culture,” and “protecting our athletes,” including updates to the team’s communications policy. 

 “Our team (athlete/coach) communication policies are not fully compliant with Safe Sport [sic] and need to be changed,” the parent board wrote in the document. “We will be revising our policies to be clear that private, one-to-one communications (like text) between an athlete and coach are not permissible.”

Despite the board’s concerns with their policy’s compliance, in an email to The Black & White on December 19, board President Dave Charlton wrote that “for a long time, our policies have required athletes, coaches, and volunteers to comply with US Rowing [sic] SafeSport policy which includes a comprehensive communication policy.” 

If an involved adult fails to comply with the MAAP, SafeSport and NGBs like USRowing may investigate and impose sanctions that limit the violating adult’s interactions with their team. 

USRowing suspended Shipley indefinitely from participating in the organization’s activities after his arrest. 

“The new communications policy is definitely important because I think a lot of things went unnoticed when that policy wasn’t in place,” said a rower on the Whitman womens’ crew team who asked to remain anonymous. “Things could slip through, like bad occurrences with the coach.”

The rower said she was unaware of the MAAP’s requirements when she started on the crew team. 

“The policy should have been in place,” the rower said. “I joined in 2019, and nobody really told me about it. It was definitely important.”

This story was originally published on The Black & White on February 2, 2022.