By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski
Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CMAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled Coaching for Safety, A Risk Management Handbook for High School Coaches, published by ESD112.
Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1603/lockerlessons.htm
It was the habit of some high school track team members to have fun by tossing a broom handle like a spear at unsuspecting team members entering the locker room. The idea was not to hit them, only to scare them. One day a player missed and the broomstick hit his teammate in the eye.
The key to this 1960’s lawsuit centered on the lack of supervision in the locker room. How could this type of horseplay have gone on for weeks? The case, won by the plaintiff, underlined the school’s responsibility to have a system for controlling its locker rooms.
Coaches have a duty to supervise all areas where there are student-athletes: on the field, in the gym, on the road, and in the locker room. Unfortunately, little has been written about how to provide safety in the locker room. This may be because locker rooms are not generally perceived as potentially problematic.
But locker rooms can be hazardous. They are crowded places, full of young people ready for activity. Wet, slippery floors as well as the famous towel snap all contribute to potential problems. Hazing incidents often occur in locker rooms.
The first step for lessening risks in the locker room is to provide the presence of authority. When locker rooms are not being used, lock them. When they are being used, your students must know that someone from your staff will be monitoring them.
There are a number of ways to cover general supervision:
• Have your assistant coaches take turns acting as the locker room supervisor, checking the entire area before practices, during changing time, and at the end of the session. Making a weekly assignment sheet works better than using a day-to-day schedule.
• Assign an out-of-season coach to be the locker room supervisor.
• Hire a monitor to supervise the locker room, just as your principal would do for other parts of the school.
• Utilize equipment managers, maintenance personnel, or security to monitor the area. However, you may need to spend more time training and coordinating these people.
• Some schools use the all-in- and all-out-together plan. Students enter with the coach. When they are dressed, they leave together, and when the practice is over, they return together. If the coach is of the opposite gender, a coach of another team may need to help out. Yes, it takes planning. So do many aspects of coaching.
Provide training to any persons supervising the locker room. Reasonable supervision does not mean you must continually observe every student at all times. That is impossible. A supervisor should circulate and scan the area in an irregular pattern, attempting to see and hear what is going on. The irregular pattern will make it more difficult for a student-athlete to try to hide something.
Along with stopping any improper behavior and noticing hazardous situations, supervisors should look for these red flags:
• Students who should not be there.
• Anyone who doesn’t go to the school.
• The old sixth sense that says "that kid seems to be acting strange or looks nervous."
• Students who take far too long to dress or re-dress.
• Students carrying something other than their athletic equipment.
What about those situations—possibly at an away game or an atypical practice time—when there is no one available to supervise the room for an opposite gender coach? At the very least, the coach can stand outside in the hallway, watch who goes in, and listen. If a coach hears what sounds like a problem, he or she can knock on the door, give a verbal countdown, then enter the room. Handling an emergency should be the first priority.
A Safe Facility
A locker room should have non-slip floors, a good drainage system to decrease standing water, and exhaust fans. All electric outlets should be ground fault circuits. The room should be well lighted, have trash receptacles, and be well maintained. A phone should be available.
Aisles should be large enough to have stationary benches near the lockers as opposed to a single bench in the center of the aisle. Lockers should be checked for damage, sharp edges, and protrusions.
Consider the layout of the locker room. A supervisor should be able to look down each aisle. High lockers make it more difficult to scan the entire area quickly. Schools that are fortunate enough to have separate team locker rooms should consider placing their lockers against three walls.
Rules are also needed for student-athletes to understand their role in proper locker room behavior. Some suggestions include:
• Be responsible: Have pride in your locker room.
• The locker room is open from ____ to ____.
• Food, drinks, and glass are prohibited.
• No horseplay, running, or throwing of items.
• Do not stand on benches or misuse lockers.
• Metal spikes are not permitted.
• Lock your locker and then double-check it.
• Use only locks issued by the school.
• Do not give out your combination or share your locker.
• Avoid bringing valuables.
• Report any problems.
Go over these rules with coaches and student-athletes and post them at the entrance of the locker room. Review them at the start of every season.
The Right Tone
Along with providing strict rules and a plan for supervision, you need to set the tone for safety in the locker room. Talk to coaches, teachers, and administrators about the potential hazards of the locker room. Explain the importance of supervising this area. Ask staff members to put this venue on their radar screen—to check out the locker room anytime they are in the area.
To emphasize this point, make a swing through the locker room yourself every afternoon. Ask an administrator of the opposite gender to walk through the other locker room. (This is in addition to the planned supervisor.) Show your student-athletes that the locker room is a place where adults are part of the scene. Show your coaches that the locker room isn’t the worst place to be.
Lessening risks in the locker room takes foresight and leadership. One less broom thrown into an eye is worth the planning.