South

New rule on background checks to guard student athletes

High school referees and umpires across the region are preparing to undergo criminal background checks starting next month as a new statewide policy aimed at expanding protection of student athletes kicks into gear.

The policy, adopted in February by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association after a Globe report that several individuals had worked at sporting contests despite being convicted of serious crime, affects about 8,000 referees and umpires who officiate at school games and meets. Starting this fall, those officials and any new ones will be required to pass the comprehensive national checks to be eligible to serve as umpires and referees.

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“You are talking about protecting the kids — that’s the bottom line,” said Dave Lezenski, director of athletics, health, and physical education for the Billerica public schools. “Our first goal is making sure that the kids are safe.”

The MIAA, which governs interscholastic athletics for about 375 public and private schools, adopted the rules after a lengthy review that began when the idea was proposed by members of the South Shore League athletic conference.

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“To even volunteer in a school system, you have to go through a CORI check,” said Michael Schultz, athletic director and assistant principal at Carver Middle High School, referring to the state Criminal Offender Record Information background check. “If contractors come into our building, they have to be CORI-checked.”

“It was an easy transition to think that anybody involved in education in any way — and athletics is an extension of the classroom – should be going through the same procedures to get approval as any of us do,” added Schultz, who with Ron Ford, Cohasset high school’s athletic director, introduced the proposal in 2013.

The MIAA will administer the background checks and create an approved list of game officials to use in selecting referees for post-season tournaments, which it oversees. It will provide the same list to local leagues to use in assigning officials for regular season games.

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While not required to do so, all leagues are expected to choose only officials on the approved list, according to Richard L. Pearson, the MIAA’s associate executive director and a former school administrator in Medway and Foxborough.

The MIAA contracted with the firm, Peopletrail, to do the background checks, and another firm, ArbiterSports, to manage the data. The checks will draw from national data bases. CORI checks by contrast are from a state database only though, and Massachusetts is phasing in a requirement that school employees undergo a fingerprint-based national background check.

Under the MIAA policy, several of the group’s executives will determine based on the background checks which officials to exclude from the list.

“It’s the most equitable, fair way to do it,” Pearson said, noting that all the checks will be processed using the same standards.

The policy lists a number of grounds for exclusion from the approved list, including conviction of using or selling illegal drugs, sexual or any violent offenses, or any crime against a minor.

Pearson said decisions will often come down to judgment calls. The policy has an appeal process.

Game officials can apply for a background check starting June 15 and will need to have a successful result by the start of the season they plan to work. Any approval applies to all sports and is good for three years.

‘It’s a good idea from a safety point of view to have coaches, and officials, and teachers, everyone on the same page.’

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To fund the program, the MIAA is charging game officials a $35 fee for the test, with another $10 charge for each additional sport. The background check fee is in addition to their annual $10 per sport registration fee. Schultz said he does not think charging officials for the checks poses an undue burden on them.

Bob Torosian of Ashland, president of the Metrowest Softball Umpires Association, said he has heard some umpires question the need for the checks, since “we don’t really have the kind of contact with kids that coaches or teachers do.” He said he expects some will also object to having to pay the fee. But he anticipates a majority will go along with the policy.

The North Shore Baseball Umpires Association has long required CORI checks for its members — the only baseball umpires’ association to do so in the state, according to the group’s president, Dick Newton of Lynn. He said his members are concerned the MIAA has not detailed the criteria it will use in deciding who is “worthy of being an umpire or a referee.” “There is nothing bad about adding a level of safety for high school kids,” he said.

“What they are being asked to pay is just a small percentage of what they earn,” he said of the officials, adding that the database being created has the potential to provide services to them such as online access to data tracking the games they have worked and their earnings.

The Globe report last December said that at least eight game officials had been convicted of serious crimes, based on a limited review of state court records. Pearson said the new policy resulted from the recommendations of an MIAA subcommittee that studied the issue for more than a year. He said referees are required to undergo background checks in about 27 states.

The new policy is drawing mixed reactions from leaders of referee groups.

“I don’t think any of my board members would have a problem with it,” said Joseph Flynn of Stoughton, a board member and past president of the Southeastern Massachusetts Football Officials Association, noting that many are former teachers accustomed to background checks. “It’s standard now.”

“If you go out on a field with hundreds or thousands of people, you should have nothing to hide,” Flynn added. “It’s a good idea from a safety point of view to have coaches, and officials, and teachers, everyone on the same page.”

Pearson said that while the MIAA cannot offer more specifics about the criteria, staff members making the decisions will call upon their experience as former school administrators, assessing the background checks in the same way school officials evaluate CORI reports.

Barry Haley, athletic director of Concord-Carlisle High School and an MIAA board member, said he worries that “we may lose some game officials” who would rather not go through with the background checks, which could lead to a shortage. But he said the policy is still well worth it.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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