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Crossing the line
It is being done now. Last February, Reginald Robinson Jr., a part-time track and basketball coach at the Ronald H. Brown Middle School, was arrested and charged with two counts of child abuse. According to published reports, Robinson had been hired even though he was a registered sex offender. He reportedly committed a sex crime as recently as 2001 and was fired by the D.C. school system in 1994 for a sex crime.
Robinson has since pleaded guilty to one count of attempted second-degree child sexual abuse. District officials, meanwhile, reacted with mandatory fingerprinting of all current and prospective D.C. public school employees. Fingerprints are considered an effective means of checking someone’s criminal background.
“It’s not a new policy,” D.C. assistant superintendent Ralph Neal said. “It’s a policy that has been in effect, that employees of the D.C. public school system, before being hired, must go through a fingerprint background check. What we have done is we have now strictly enforced the policy for coaches who are employees and non-employees of the D.C. public school system.”
Neal said he instructed Chin not to pay a coach for his or her work during the spring semester if that coach has yet to be fingerprinted. Spingarn’s Williams, a coach for 32 years and president of the National High School Coaches Association, recently was fingerprinted for the first time. He said all of his coaches have been cleared, but added that he heard “at some other schools, they did find police records and things of that nature.”
Most suburban school districts in Maryland and Virginia have long required fingerprinting for prospective coaches. But no matter how many safeguards are taken, there is still the human factor to consider. Robinson somehow slipped through the cracks. So did the educational aide at the District’s Ballou High School who was hired in 1999 despite background checks revealing he was a known sex offender. Last month, he was arrested and charged with molesting a 17-year-old student.
Much of what goes on in high schools stays below the radar. In some cases, coaches are not re-hired because of sexual impropriety, but their actions do not reach the courts and thus are not publicized. Montgomery County high school athletic director Duke Beattie said his employees are “well-versed in professionalism,” but when asked if he has had first-hand experience with this particular issue, he said, “Yes, we’ve had to deal with it.” Added Anne Arundel County AD Marlene Kelly, “If a person is dismissed, it might not be a legal issue.”
Kelly, Beattie and other athletic directors say they make sure their coaches are counseled and educated on what constitutes inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. As a member of the equity committee of the National Federation of High Schools, Kelly is working on a pamphlet dealing with sexual harassment that will be distributed to all members.
There is no national coaching certification program, although organizations like the National Federation of Coaches offer training courses. In some school districts, such as Fairfax County, coaches are required to enroll in such courses, but in most districts they are not. Part of the training includes the do’s and don’ts — not only the obvious ones, but such scenarios as driving athletes home and going on unchaperoned overnight trips.
“People have to be very careful,” Chantilly High School AD Donna King said.
People are being careful. Beyond high school sports, several amateur athletic associations also unequivocally forbid sexual relations of any type between coaches and athletes. Last October, Little League made background checks mandatory for anyone who has “repetitive access to, or contact with players or teams.” Since 1998, the organization has had a “Child Protection Program” that, among other things, gives advice on how to spot potential child abusers.
The United States Figure Skating Association in 2000 established clear guidelines designed to define and prevent sexual harassment. United States Water Polo’s code of ethics prohibits “sexual intimacies” with current and even former athletes less than two years removed from the coach-athlete relationship. Nevertheless, USWP was rocked by two scandals in which coaches pleaded guilty to sexually abusing their athletes.
The scary truth is that all the guidelines and ethical codes, background checks and fingerprinting, training courses and pamphlets and expectations of adhering to a higher standard are sometimes rendered meaningless. And often, there is no way to project or predict who will cross the line. “Many sexual abusers are respected members of the community and many have known their victims for an extended period of time,” wrote Michigan State professor Vern Seefeldt in a report appearing on the school’s Web site. Seefeldt is a former director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
In Mt. Airy, N.C., a year after his team won the 1-A state championship, the boys high school basketball coach was fired after being charged with having sexual relations with two students — neither of them his players. Kemp Phillips, a former star at Appalachian State University, faces several charges, including three counts of statutory rape.
“I think it’s fair to say most of us were shocked,” Mt. Airy superintendent Bill Church said.
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