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WASHINGTON AVE — Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Fine are but two of the recent cases of sexual abuse in an athletic organization. These highly publicized cases show that bullying, sexual harassment and abuse are still occurring in the athletic world today.

Katherine Starr, founder of Safe4Athletes, Santa Monica local and former Olympic athlete, plans to change that with her new organization.

Starr was a victim of such abuse herself, and conceived this organization to help current young athletes and protect them from such unfortunate incidents.

“I’m a two-time Olympic athlete, in the ’84 and ’88 Olympics, and my lead Olympic coach sexually abused me throughout my entire elite career,” Starr said. “I knew that these issues weren’t being addressed, and the same thing is still going on. I carry a lot of pain and it’s a painful way to live, I couldn’t bear having a child who has to endure such an experience, they should be free to be an athlete.”

Safe4Athlete’s mission is to develop policies and procedures at the local level for sports clubs and teams to handle sexual harassment and bullying by providing them with an athlete welfare advocate to speak to about these issues, should they occur. Starr believes that parents should be more informed and capable of making better decisions about such situations.

There is no legal protection for open amateur sports outside of criminal law, according to Starr, and that is why sexual harassment is tolerated in the athletic community. There isn’t a way to prevent it.

This is evident; 159 coaches in Washington have been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape in the last decade, and nearly all were male coaches victimizing girls, according to the Seattle Times. At least 98 of said coaches continued to coach. The Board of Directors of USA Gymnastics released a statement that revealed that 82 coaches were banned from its ranks.

Starr hopes that every sports club and community will adopt a Safe4Athletes policy and program to prevent this type of abuse as well as sexual abuse and harassment from happening. She believes that parents should know that when they drop their children off at one of these programs, there is a set of procedures in place to protect their kids from all types of abuse.

Sports psychology consultant Karen Costello believes that the most prevalent abuse at the high school level is verbal coach-on-athlete abuse.

“I saw a lot of it happening at the high school level with young male coaches who don’t respect boundaries,” Costello said. “They cross the line and maybe start being a little too friendly with the athletes, trying to be one of them rather than an authority figure, and then it becomes something else.”

Costello also notes that a lot of this verbal abuse, especially when it targets body image, can lead to eating disorders for many young girls.

“One little comment can put a teenage girl over the edge,” Costello said. “In my 22 years in athletics, the most prevalent thing I’ve seen is body image issues.”

It is also very difficult, especially for a high school student, to blow the whistle on a popular coach. There is often backlash from other athletes so it is difficult for an athlete to come forward and speak to someone about any problems with the coach, Costello said.

The athlete welfare advocate provided to the children would be an unbiased person, which makes him or her more accessible and helpful than another parent or coach. This ameliorates the process for such aforementioned high school students who are afraid of being bullied by other athletes for ousting a popular coach.

“Another parent wouldn’t want to fire a coach because their kid might still be doing well, never mind that this other child is suffering,” Starr said. “You have to take away the decision from the parents’ hands. They [the young athletes] need to be able to perform and not have to figure out the emotional intelligence behind this.”

After suffering such abuse herself, Starr recognizes the struggles that athletes go through, and the added pressure of figuring out what to do when abuse occurs is a very heavy weight to have on one’s shoulders.

“In my case, I wouldn’t have gone to a governing body, I was only 14,” Starr said. “A 14-year-old cannot navigate themselves around a corporation.”

The welfare advocates could be reached through more modern technological means, unlike in Starr’s day when a pen and paper was the only communication method. This also helps make the process more discrete.

Safe4Athletes got the word out and hosted a fundraising event at the home of Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, on June 26. Many celebrities and athletes such as Estella Warren, Canadian national synchronized swimming champion and actress in “Planet of the Apes,” and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, three-time Olympic gold medalist for swimming, were in attendance.

“It went very well,” Starr said. “To have someone like Richard Riordan put on an event for you speaks volumes about the need for the organization. We put a stake in the ground and we’re moving forward so I’m happy about it. It’s more important that what we do gets implemented into the sports community.”

In addition to being so invested in the athletic community, Starr still stays active herself. Being a Santa Monica local, Starr frequents the Fourth Street stairs to work out. She enjoys being outside and walking on the beach as well.

Starr has lived in Santa Monica for seven years, and lives just several blocks from the popular Third Street Promenade in one of the city’s historic buildings, the Sovereign.

“I just love the diversity of the [Santa Monica] community, and it’s a great place to live,” Starr said. “It’s a very active community, and a very friendly place. I like the locals and I like Montana Avenue, which I think is the best kept secret of Santa Monica. It’s a great street.”

Although Starr does not have children of her own, she hopes to “adopt every little athlete child of my own.” Her organization is committed to protecting their welfare.

“I want parents to be able to read this and understand how important it is to have a program like this for their kid,” Starr said. “I’m empowering them to make a decision. They need to know that their kids are vulnerable, and we’re trying to change that. Don’t turn a blind eye to this issue, and know that you can do something about it.”

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