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Athletic Trainer’s Professional Responsibility

Posted November 9, 2018

By Sarah Walters, MOL, LAT

Sexual assault, harassment and abuse have become hot topics in today’s society. One of the hardest jobs we have as Athletic Trainers (ATs) is maintaining rapport with our patients. In a society where it seems so many people are willing to talk about injustice, how do we as ATs respond? Where is the ethical line and professional boundary? How do we know when to transition from healthcare provider to confidant and back to healthcare provider? These are all difficult questions we face in our profession.

According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, it is our duty as ATs to abide by a code of ethics that ensures ethical practice and ultimately patient safety. It is the responsibility of an ATs to report perceived actions of sexual assault and abuse to the appropriate authorities. In fact, if an AT does not report sexual assault, federal law may cause one to lose their certification and license to practice athletic training.

How do we know what to report when it seems so many have experienced some level of sexual misconduct? Red flags of sexual abuse and assault include:

Child or teenager:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Behaves secretive or isolated
  • Exhibits trouble in school with grades or behavioral issues
  • Talks of death or suicide
  • Shows little attachment to parent, guardian or other significant adult in their life
  • Avoids being around or making eye contact with certain individuals

Adult:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms such as loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, hypervigilance and/or easily agitated over minor issues
  • Declining grades or withdrawal from school
  • Substance or alcohol abuse
  • Risk taking behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy, including sports participation
  • Self-harm such as cutting or burning oneself
  • Talk of death or suicide ideation

We know we need to report possible sexual abuse or assault, but to whom should we report it? If the victim is a child, then many states have toll-free reporting hotlines. Child protective services may be another option, but you’ll want to look up the number for your local agency. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s not a matter of if you’ll need the number but when. If the victim is an adult, then the AT can still use a toll-free hotline or can report it by contacting local law enforcement agencies. In most counties or parishes, it is the sheriff’s department.

Remember, it is mandatory for ATs to report suspected sexual assault or abuse at any level. Often, ATs are the first line of advocacy for many of our patients and sometimes our advocacy extends beyond the traditional ways we are used to as ATs! If you are ever in doubt about how to handle the situation, many local law enforcement officers, administrators of schools or human resource departments can give you more specific legal guidance.

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