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Youth coaches go on offense against abuse

After Penn State, a push for education, caution

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

John Saia coached the Boston Junior Bruins during a game this week at Boch Ice Center in Dedham.

When the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal broke at Pennsylvania State University last November, Al Perillo made a decision: Starting this year, all Pop Warner Football coaches in New England - not just head coaches, but assistants, too - will be required to learn what constitutes proper protocol.

“We want to make sure everyone is aware of the do’s and don’ts,’’ said Perillo, who lives in Everett and serves as Pop Warner’s New England director.

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The online tutorial warns against such things as driving other children home from practices, advising coaches to instead call police if a child’s ride does not show and parents cannot be reached. Officials also plan to reemphasize the importance of touching athletes only in appropriate places, generally on the helmet for a football player, on the arm for a cheerleader.

“Don’t do anything that could be misconstrued,’’ Perillo said.

Welcome to coaching in 2012, a time when “risk management’’ goes way beyond walking the field before a game to check for broken glass or holes. After fall’s high-profile accusations - against Sandusky, an assistant football coach who was accused of sexually abusing 10 boys, and against Bernie Fine, an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University fired amid allegations he molested two boys - a number of youth sports-related organizations are significantly strengthening existing child-protection efforts. Their goal: to prevent child abuse, and in some cases, to make sure that coaches do not inadvertently make themselves vulnerable to unfounded accusations.

Little League Baseball and Softball, which has almost 95,000 Massachusetts players, has e-mailed its volunteers worldwide to alert them that information about reporting suspected child abuse is available on the organization’s website.

“This whole Sandusky situation has brought this to the forefront,’’ said Steve Barr, Little League’s director of media relations.

‘You know how you used to pat kids on the butt and send them into the game? Some people see that as inappropriate contact now.’

Jim Thompson Positive Coaching Alliance
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In January, Positive Coaching Alliance, a California-based nonprofit with a Boston chapter, drafted guidelines for leagues and coaches. One section informs readers that among child-abuse victims, 90 percent “are abused by someone whom they know and trust’’ and reminds them that “statistics show most instances of child abuse go undetected.’’

“We see this as a great teachable moment,’’ said Jim Thompson, the group’s founder.

Criminal background checks, such as the Criminal Offender Record Information system used by Massachusetts youth sports organizations, are important, Thompson said, “but they don’t solve the problem. If you have a predator who hasn’t been caught or charged, they won’t show up. And often times with background checks from jurisdiction to jurisdiction you don’t pick up something.’’

While the Sandusky case has grabbed attention nationwide, those involved in youth sports say they are also motivated to refocus attention on child safety by local stories, and headlines that seem to keep coming: “Lawrence school worker gets 5 years on rape charge’’ (Associated Press, Jan. 6, 2012); “Man sexually assaulted by ex-coach faces him in court’’ (Lowell Sun, Feb. 9, 2011); “Former Coach Faces Child Porn Charges’’ (Globe, Feb. 26, 2011).

Many organizations, of course, began increasing child-protection efforts long before the charges against Sandusky, amid growing societal awareness of sexual predators at schools, in religious organizations, and in sports. Next week, after a couple of years of work, the US Olympic Committee plans to unveil a safe-sport handbook, launch a safe-sport website, and introduce an online coaching certification program.

Tensions surrounding child sex abuse are running so high that, around the time Perillo was deciding to beef up coach training, Daniel Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society Center, was fielding calls from coaches worried their own reputations might be stained by Sandusky. “Are people going to assume that because I’m a coach I’m doing this?’’ they asked.

Indeed, a number of local coaches and a Sports Illustrated columnist who coaches a boys’ junior varsity basketball team in California said the recent high-profile scandals prompted them to feel uncomfortable or to change their behavior.

“You do get nervous because someone can say something happened and it’s really our word against theirs, and you are automatically guilty,’’ said John Saia, of West Roxbury, a skating coach for the Boston Junior Bruins and a board member and coach for Parkway Youth Hockey. “It doesn’t matter what the truth is. I try to make sure I don’t get myself into a situation that could lead to any accusations.’’

“You know how you used to pat kids on the butt and send them into the game?’’ said Pat Inderwish, a veteran Pop Warner coach, and president of Central Massachusetts Pop Warner and Boylston/West Boylston Youth Football. “Some people see that as inappropriate contact now. Those are the things you’ve got to keep in your mind.’’

Phil Taylor, the Sports Illustrated columnist who wrote about his new policy against driving kids home from evening practices, said he was worried that he would be criticized for over-reacting, but instead he largely received support.

“They said they had exactly the same feelings of being alone with a player in a way they’d never thought about before,’’ he said in an interview with the Globe. “I also got a few responses from people who said, ‘Get over it. As long as you’re not a pervert, what do you have to worry about? Don’t let the child molesters win.’ But 90 percent of the responses were, ‘What a shame this is, but I know exactly what you are talking about.’ ’’

James C. Schmutz, executive director of the American Sport Education Program, an Illinois firm that sells coach education to scholastic and youth sport coaches and organizations, estimates that 44 million children between ages 7 and 17 participate in organized sports in the United States, with about 8 million coaches.

“There is no good data on the percentage of coaches who are formally educated [about sexual child abuse], but it’s not a big number,’’ Schmutz said. “Without mandatory education, it’s one of the challenges of running volunteer organizations and covering all scholastic coaches.’’

The difficulty of educating volunteer coaches is part of the reason Mike Singleton, executive director of Massachusetts Youth Soccer - which has included risk-management education for all of its coaches for almost a decade - says parents should get to know their children’s coaches.

“If you’re a parent and you show up at Macy’s and someone says, ‘I’m the Macy’s child care worker; just give your child to me,’ people would think that was an absurd idea,’’ Singleton said. “But as long as someone’s in athletic gear and says, ‘I’m a coach,’ people drop their kid off and leave. That’s absurd to me.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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