The Rating Corner | Dec 01, 2020
Rating Corner | The Thin Gray Line—Did you Cross it?

Ray Lallo

A young, female AFF instructor approached an instructor examiner after a jump and said, “I’m new here and really don’t know the other instructors that well yet. I was just on an AFF jump with Mr. X. Just as we were set up in the door with the student, he reached over and snapped my leg-strap bungee. After we debriefed the student, I pulled him aside and asked him not to do that again. He told me to get over myself; that’s what skydivers do. I prefer not to be paired with him in the future.”

When the examiner asked the bungee-snapping instructor about the incident, he seemed unaware that he had crossed a line (despite the fact that the other instructor told him outright that he had). From his perspective, he was just having fun.

When the examiner asked further questions—“Have you done this before? Would you do that to me? What if someone did that to you? Would you be okay with someone doing that to your daughter or your mom?”—his defensiveness softened as he thought his actions through. 

Just about everyone can agree that certain actions constitute sexual harassment and that other actions do not. The difficulty lies in that thin gray line in between. This is the area where the most conflict and biggest disconnect in communication occurs. How can a skydiver—and especially a rating holder—avoid such issues?

Being Aware

There can never be a blanket definition of where that thin gray line is, since we all have different ideas of what is and is not offensive. Although everyone recognizes that people have different preferences for food or drink or even skydiving disciplines, we often just assume that people feel the same way we do about behavioral boundaries. That’s where the trouble can start. Simply keeping in mind that others have different boundaries than yours goes a long way toward steering clear of behaviors that might cross them. Take your cues from others. Recognize that in student-teacher situations, the line must be clearer. Listen when someone tells you outright that they are offended instead of dismissing them or brushing them off as a fuddy-duddy.

Our Unspoken Culture

Overall, USPA instructional rating holders know that they must take a respectful approach to students. But instructors also need to recognize that they are in positions of authority on the drop zone and that a respectful approach should extend to everyone. Quips such as, “She’s not a student, so she’s fair game,” to justify preying on a new arrival are unacceptable. We are at the drop zone to skydive. It’s not a dating service.

As a leader at the drop zone, you need to understand that those with less influence may feel too intimidated to speak up if they’re feeling uncomfortable. And if they do speak up, it may come at a price. Some drop zone whistleblowers have lost their jobs at DZs, been labeled as troublemakers or worse. And it’s often the victims of sexual harassment who leave the drop zone, not the offender. Although sometimes it’s appropriate to give the offender the benefit of the doubt, doing so too often can cause that person to continually push at (or even cross) that thin gray line.

Harassment comes in many forms, and it’s not always blatant. Sometimes it is baked into the culture and not even directed specifically at one person. Take this instance:

Two instructors were talking among themselves and telling crude jokes and stories. Although no students were around, the parents of a 19-year-old student were. They overheard the discussion, were appalled and no longer felt that their daughter was safe with these instructors. When made aware of the situation, one of the instructors looked honestly at his behavior, recognized that he had crossed the line and apologized to the parents. The other instructor refused to acknowledge that it was a problem.

The fact is, unprofessional cultures exist in some places. The best instructors rise above this and hold themselves to a higher standard.

Addressing the Issue at Multiple Levels

Harassment is everyone’s problem, so everyone must take part in addressing it. A plan must have the flexibility to allow for individual preferences along the thin gray line.

Community Level

Instructional rating holders are direct representatives of USPA and any misconduct that violates the scope of Section 1-6 of the USPA Governance Manual could lead to disciplinary action (as it has in the past). Additionally, at the Summer 2020 USPA Board of Directors Meeting, the board voted in favor of adopting a proposed USPA Values Statement, pending legal review. Once unveiled, this values statement should help guide all USPA members, and particularly rating holders, as to what behavior is acceptable as a representative of the organization.

Local Level

At a local level, drop zones can implement customized harassment policies. These can be very effective. For example, one drop zone has a DZ safety sign prominently displayed. The first rule reads, “Respect will be shown to staff, instructors, customers, airport users and neighbors at all times! Being on a drop zone is no excuse for bad behavior, and if someone calls you out for being offensive, saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and stopping is the only acceptable recourse.”

Of course, words on a poster mean nothing if the drop zone does not follow them up with action in cases of infraction. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for harassment is one way that a drop zone can show that it is serious.

Individual Level

  1|  We all make mistakes or have insert-foot-in-mouth moments. How can you make it right when you have offended someone?

  2|  Apologize, preferably in front of someone the person trusts, so they feel safe.

  3|  Never do what you did again.

Give them space until they feel comfortable around you. This is on their timeline, not yours. Continually trying to hang around and show them you aren’t scary is counterproductive. They will just feel like you don’t respect their boundaries.

The flip side of this is the responsibility of the one who was offended to find a way to be heard. If you do not feel safe to speak up in the moment or to the offender themselves, find others to whom you can bring your concerns. Your silence gives tacit approval for the behavior to continue, and it’s likely that others who follow will suffer the same situation. It may not be fair that you have to say anything at all, but you must do it.

Why It Matters

Let’s face it, we all love to be special. However, elitism and exclusiveness stunt the growth of our beloved sport. Inclusiveness and acceptance lead to growth and abundance. One of the most enjoyable things about the skydiving community is the joy that comes from knowing people of a variety of ages, occupations, politics, religions, backgrounds, ideologies, etc.

As instructors, we are on the front lines every day and should hold ourselves to the highest standards of our sport and industry. It is our duty to foster a safe and fun DZ culture that others can and will follow. So, be safe, respect and take care of each other and by all means, have fun … just not at the expense of others.

USPA Mountain Regional Director Ray Lallo | D-11400
AFF and Coach Examiner, Tandem and Static-Line Instructor, PRO

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