Thousands of area children will participate in youth basketball and cheerleading this winter, and local recreation departments will spend the next few weeks making sure the parents of those young athletes can have peace of mind when sending their kids to games and practices.
Coaches, assistant coaches and adult volunteers around the area must pass criminal background checks, according to representatives from recreation departments in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties. Recent allegations of sexual offenses against children by an assistant football coach at Penn State have served as reminders to parents and athletic coordinators to be diligent.
“Every volunteer in our program goes through a background check before they coach with us,” said Tom Beck, the director of Augusta’s recreation, parks and facilities department. “It’s mandatory. It’s not even a question.”
A volunteer’s record in Richmond County doesn’t have to be spotless, but certain criminal offenses can result in an immediate dismissal from coaching youth sports, including any sexual offense, simple or aggravated battery against a minor, cruelty to children and contributing to the deliquency of a minor within the past five years.
Beck said the background checks, which are performed by the Richmond County Sherriff’s Office, regularly produce red flags. He estimated among the 400 or so volunteers who help with the recreation department’s baseball season, “three or four” annually are disqualified from coaching.
Similar background-check policies protect children in Columbia and Aiken counties. Ken Warner, the athletic supervisor at the Columbia County Recreation Department, said head coaches are screened once every year.
“Unfortunately, it’s a necessity,” he said. “We do what we can, and there are some people who have something in their past. Most of the time it’s from a family violence situation. We’ve never had to turn anyone away because of a sexual offense.”
Paying for hundreds of background checks each year can place a financial burden on recreation departments. Warner said the checks cost $10 per coach in Columbia County. The city of Aiken also pays for the screenings and will have 86 youth basketball teams this winter, athletic coordinator Crystal Iannacone said.
Parents in Aiken have seen youth sports participation fees raised in recent years, in part, because of the cost of doing background checks on the volunteers.
“We have had parents ask why the fees go up, and that’s one of the reasons,” Iannacone said. “We have to protect the kids.”
The Nov. 5 charges brought against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky center around an alleged 15-year span of molesting eight boys at the university. Legendary football coach Joe Paterno lost his job over the matter, and Penn State took the field this past Saturday to play its first football game without him since 1965.
Clint Bryant, Augusta State University’s athletic director, said he was shocked to hear about the developments at Penn State and added it’s a wake-up call for his profession.
“You just cringe to think what went on and how it went on,” Bryant said. “A lot of people were involved, apparently.”
Augusta State is a state entity with several policies for reporting concerns in place. First, the school has a sexual harassment policy and committee on campus. Second, the Georgia Board of Regents provides a hotline for reporting any compliance or ethics violations. Callers can leave anonymous messages or leave their names.
Bryant said at his next coaches meeting this Friday, he will reiterate those two policies.
“I’m going to make it a point of emphasis to let our coaches know what is available to them,” Bryant said. “I’m going to make sure they are aware of those two things.”
In his 24 years as athletic director, Bryant said he’s always had an open-door policy for coaches and students to report inappropriate behavior. At USC Aiken, athletic director Randy Warrick has also had the same open-door policy for 25 years. And like Bryant, he will discuss USC Aiken’s sexual assault policy to his staff at their next meeting Friday.
USC Aiken’s policy states: “USCA does not intend to substitute or supersede related civil and criminal law. It is the policy of this institution to strongly encourage victims to report all incidents and violations to the law enforcement agencies or officials with appropriate jurisdiction and to avail themselves of all the services and rights to which they are entitled by law.”
“My guess is any time something like this happens, where something out of the norm happens, universities talk about it,” Warrick said. “It’s one of those things you hope never happens in your department. But we do have policies in place, and we expect our employees to follow these policies.”
Warrick added younger children are in the building when there are events like summer camps. But the facility usually has plenty of personnel around. And when no one is at the school’s convocation center, it is locked.