Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Can I Friend My Students On Facebook? USEF Legal Counsel Sonja Keating Answers New SafeSport Policy Questions



U.S. Equestrian Federation representatives announced May 22 that additional policies were being added to the organization’s SafeSport practices. These policies limit one-on-one interactions between minors and adults who are not their parents or legal guardians, including communicating with minors on social media and via text.

Some of the new rules have members scratching their heads as to what will be allowed once the policies go into effect June 1, so the Chronicle spoke with USEF’s legal counsel Sonja Keating to clarify.

First, a bit of background on the Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention policies: They are a part of the SafeSport Authorization Act that was authored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). First brought to the floor in 2017, the bill received bi-partisan support and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Feb. 14, 2018.

Along with forming the U.S. Center For SafeSport and requiring all national governing bodies of sports under the U.S. Olympic Committee umbrella, including USEF, to put SafeSport training policies in place, the bill also requires national governing bodies to introduce policies limiting one-on-one interactions between minors and unrelated adults. MAAP policies specifically address these one-one-one interactions.

The MAAP policies fall under two categories: recommended components and mandatory components. The first is a set of policies USEF and the SafeSport center recommend trainers and adults put in place to protect both minors in their programs and their own liability. The latter are obligatory at home and during USEF-recognized competitions for any USEF member over the age of 18. A violation of these policies could result in disciplinary action from USEF or the Center For SafeSport.

Most of the mandatory components only apply to members while they are competing at recognized competitions, but there are three sections that apply to all adult USEF members at all times—the policies concerning local travel, team travel, and social media and electronic communications. You can read the full language surrounding those policies here. In short, they require that when traveling no adult should ever be in a room alone with a minor, and when communicating with a minor an adult should always copy another adult or the minor’s parent/legal guardian on the message. The policy also lists under its recommended social media practices that adults should not accept new page or follow requests to their personal accounts from minors.

The social media and electronic communication directives are currently causing the most conversation online, so we focused on that in our Q&A session with Keating.


COTH: Under these new rules, can a trainer be friends with their students on Facebook? Do they need to unfriend any minors?

Keating: Yes, a trainer can be friends with their students on Facebook. There’s no requirement to unfriend minors on social media. The new policy disallows private social media connections between an adult and [an] unrelated minor athlete. Adults and minors can make comments on one another’s social media posts, so long as those are open to all followers, including other adults.

How do you see this playing out in terms of how trainers and students, say, set up lessons or get organized for shows?

Trainers simply need to add another adult or the minor’s parent/guardian to all communications. Ideally the parent/legal guardian would be copied on all texts and other communications, but another adult such as an assistant trainer can be added instead. If a minor rider privately messages a trainer first, then the trainer should copy another adult when responding to the minor athlete.

USEF staff are following this practice too. For instance, the sport staff copies an adult on any communication with a minor athlete. Whether they contact an athlete about eligibility for an upcoming event or following up on an application of intent to compete on a team, those direct communications will include another adult such as a parent or legal guardian.

If someone violates this policy, what can we expect in terms of the enforcement and response from USEF?

USEF is responsible for enforcing these policies, and the outcome of a policy violation will depend on the facts and circumstances of the situation. These are proactive policies, and the aim is to create a culture that minimizes the risk for minor athlete abuse to occur. Education is critical.


If we receive a report that a trainer is texting a minor athlete without copying another adult, unless the content of the communications violate another policy, we would make efforts to educate the trainer and ensure he/she understands the requirements of the policy and how to comply. On the other hand, if we substantiate reports about a trainer who knowingly and repeatedly disregards the policies, then that would warrant initiating disciplinary proceedings.

What will the process for reporting or responding to a complaint about a violation of this process be like?

Reports for MAAP policy violations are made in the same way a SafeSport report is made. A reporting party can use the report form available on USEF’s website, email, or report to USEF staff members Teresa Roper, Emily Pratt or Sonja Keating via email or telephone. If the reported violation is also sexual in nature, e.g. sexting a minor athlete or sending sexualized images to a minor, then the report will be forwarded to the authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The disciplinary process for violations that warrant discipline is the same process followed for any other USEF rule violation. A responding party is afforded rights such as: written notice of the alleged violation, an opportunity for a hearing before an impartial panel, a reasonable amount of time before the hearing to prepare a defense, opportunity to be represented by legal counsel at one’s own expense, opportunity to call witnesses and present oral and written evidence and argument, opportunity to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, opportunity to request a written record of the hearing, reasoned written decision following the hearing, and an opportunity to request a review of the Hearing Committee’s decision.

We’ve seen a lot of comments online like, “What is the world coming to that we need this?”  and “This is bureaucratic overkill.” How would you respond to those sentiments?   

This movement is way overdue. The reality is that too many athletes have had their lives destroyed at the hands of trusted adults. We’ve seen this in collegiate sports as well as Olympic sports. Bipartisanship in Congress is rare these days, but one concept that Congress agrees on is that this nation needs to do more to protect young athletes from abuse.





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