Gymnastics coaches out after harassment claim

A husband-wife coaching pair resigned amid University and federal investigations into their conduct with gymnasts.

Women's gymnastics head coach Meg Stephenson, left, and assistant coach Jim Stephenson speak with their team after they finished competing in an in-house meet on /date/ at Peik Gymnasium. This season the Gophers qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2002.

Amanda Snyder, Daily File Photo

Women’s gymnastics head coach Meg Stephenson, left, and assistant coach Jim Stephenson speak with their team after they finished competing in an in-house meet on /date/ at Peik Gymnasium. This season the Gophers qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2002.

Jessica Lee

Perfect landings and lipstick smiles masked federal and University of Minnesota investigations into complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation within the Gophers women’s gymnastics team last season.

Former volunteer assistant coach Jim Stephenson quietly resigned after more than two decades with the program amid the University’s review of his conduct with team members, some of whom allege he repeatedly sexually harassed gymnasts. The team finished the year under the direction of head coach Meg Stephenson, his wife.

She resigned on Thursday.

From the stands, the team seemed unaffected. It ended the 2013-14 season with high marks despite what some gymnasts — who won’t be named due to the nature of the allegations — described as a culture of confusion and tension culminating behind closed doors.

“We didn’t really know what to do or who to believe,” one former gymnast said.

Meg Stephenson declined requests for interviews in July on behalf of herself and her husband.

Investigations into the alleged sexual harassment and its fallout reached the federal level. For months, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has been investigating a complaint that alleges the University failed to take effective steps to end the sexual harassment by Jim Stephenson and remedy its effects.

Until that examination concludes, its details remain confidential.

University administrators said the school addressed the complaints efficiently and promptly and that the athletics department secured the student-athletes’ welfare throughout the season. But some current and former gymnasts disagreed, claiming they were left in an uncomfortable environment as they grappled with emotional distress.

“It felt as if things were just slid under a rug. And I know that something like this … could possibly bring a bad reputation to Minnesota and the gymnastics team,” one former gymnast said. “However, it wasn’t fully handled.”

With the gymnasts sitting on their locker room’s L-shaped couch barelegged and leotard-clad, current and former team members said, University athletics director Norwood Teague and other administrators led a closed-door meeting minutes before a routine practice in October.

There, the gymnasts said, the officials announced the start of the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action’s investigation into Jim Stephenson’s behaviors and his suspension.

Similar meetings with athletics administrators continued throughout the season, the gymnasts said, yet the team continued to practice and compete without openly addressing the investigations or alleged incidents of sexual harassment.

“We didn’t understand what was going on, so we didn’t say anything,” one former gymnast said.

Jim Stephenson resigned during the University’s examination of his conduct, a review that consisted of interviews with team members and reviews of electronic communications.

The school carried out the review, and the athletics department later told him he could no longer be part of the program.

Following his departure, another in-house investigation in the spring showed that Meg Stephenson violated the school’s anti-retaliation policies. In a July 7 letter, Teague reprimanded her for her behavior, mandated that she attend an anti-retaliation coaching session and said subsequent violations of University policy could result in her termination.

“Evidence indicates that Ms. Stephenson made occasional suspicious or angry comments about a number of team and staff members in the days after [Jim Stephenson’s investigation] began,” according to findings from the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Meg Stephenson believed some in the program conspired against her, according to the findings, and she expressed blame, anger and mistrust toward team members shortly after the start of her husband’s investigation.

Brett Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, said recommending counseling is generally a mild response to retaliation, but appropriate remedial measures vary by case.

The University announced Meg Stephenson’s “mutually agreed-upon” resignation on Thursday. The program’s two assistant coaches, Jenny Hansen and Louie Johnson, will keep their current positions while the athletics department conducts a coaching search.

“After careful consideration, this department felt the need for a change to women’s gymnastics for the good of the students and the program,” Teague said in the statement.

Federal review follows University investigations

Meg Stephenson was named the Big Ten’s women’s gymnastics Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2014.

Whether because of the Gophers athletics department’s high-powered press machine or the team’s performance on the mats, the relationship between staff and student-athletes appeared positive during the 2013-14 season and beyond.

“[The athletics department is] extremely proud of the maturity and focus displayed by our student-athletes with regard to this situation,” University associate athletics director for strategic communications Chris Werle wrote in a July 22 statement in light of Jim Stephenson’s resignation.

But current and former gymnasts said they were in an environment that stifled discussions surrounding the coaches’ alleged inappropriate behavior and subsequent examinations, which they said was uncomfortable.

“Everyone [involved with the team] was very much aware of the situation,” one former gymnast said.

Current and former gymnasts said members of the team told athletics administration about Jim Stephenson’s alleged inappropriate behavior in meetings before the 2013-14 season. But they said their concerns weren’t addressed.

The alleged incidents of sexual harassment by Jim Stephenson continued both inside and outside the gym, one former gymnast said.

“You don’t let it, like, come to the front of your brain because it makes you uncomfortable, but you don’t exactly know what to do,” one former gymnast said of the alleged incidents of sexual harassment.

Heather McLaughlin, an assistant sociology professor at Oklahoma State University, said that based on her research, victims of sexual harassment are less likely to speak up and the harassment is more likely to continue in situations where people in positions of authority, like coaches — who potentially control student-athletes’ ability to attend college — don’t address it appropriately.

Kimberly Hewitt, the University’s Title IX Coordinator and director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said the office looked into the complaints as soon as it received them last fall.

“I think we did a really strong job of being responsive and being really thorough with how we investigated,” Hewitt said, adding that the office communicated closely with the athletics department.

Other University officials, including President Eric Kaler, monitored the gymnastics case throughout last season and agreed that the school handled the complaints efficiently.

“My reading of the [Stephenson] investigations indicated that they were thorough and that the outcomes were appropriate,” Kaler said in July.

An attorney representing one former gymnast said he filed a charge in late March with at least one government office, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the school failed to address the alleged sexual harassment by Jim Stephenson and its effects.

The gymnast didn’t feel “comfortable in the program …” he said.

The attorney also said his client plans to file a case against the University. A lawsuit would cause the Office for Civil Rights to drop its pursuit of the complaint.

The Office for Civil Rights investigates and resolves complaints alleging that schools receiving federal funding have failed to protect students from discrimination, often forming agreements to require better policies, procedures and training.

University General Counsel William Donohue said he predicts the federal office’s investigation will finish in the fall. The school will make the appropriate adjustments based on the investigation’s findings if necessary, he said.

“[The Office for Civil Rights is] going to look at how we performed,” he said. “And that’s OK because if, in fact, there [are] problems with how we performed, we’ll fix them and make them better.”

Team finished strong for years

Alumni and fans who attended home meets said last season’s run had multiple successes and there weren’t any noticeable changes compared to previous years.

Members of the women’s gymnastics program consistently earned top-25 national finishes and regional titles throughout the Stephensons’ tenure. Touting their complementary skills and inclusivity within the department, the Stephensons told the Minnesota Daily in April 2013 that they planned to finish their careers at the school.

“We’ve been very committed to laying our philosophies out on the table,” Jim Stephenson said at the time. “Our expectations, our own personal accountability — everything’s out on the table …”

Many former gymnasts described the Stephensons as caring and professional coaches.

The husband-wife duo joined the school’s program in the 1990s. Jim Stephenson held the title of head coach for 17 years, and Meg Stephenson started as an assistant coach. The couple led the program as co-head coaches from 1999 to 2009.

The Gophers announced that Meg Stephenson would take over as head coach in summer 2009. Around the same time, injuries forced Jim Stephenson into the role of volunteer assistant coach.

In that role, Jim Stephenson abandoned his duties of spotting, or providing a safeguard for flying gymnasts, and primarily helped with providing technical advice. The transition allowed him more time to focus on his other passion outside of gymnastics — art.

He provided illustrations for a gymnastics technique textbook and for U.S. Sports Federations, and he has sculpted artwork for both public and private collections.

Moving into the 2014-15 season, some current and former gymnasts said they’re concerned about securing an appropriate environment for new student-athletes who signed onto the team.

“Gymnastics is already an environment that you need to be focusing 100 percent on the skill you’re doing, and if there is a battle going on in the gym, and there is all this tension and [an] elephant in the room, that’s just a distraction you really can’t have,” one former gymnast said.

She said it was challenging to be in that environment every day.

“I just don’t think … there should be another year like that,” she said.