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Lawmaker pushes for background checks on high school referees

Sports referees who officiate games in Massachusetts high schools would be subject to criminal background checks under proposed legislation on Beacon Hill aimed at promoting student safety.

The measure, inspired in part by a Globe investigation of school referees with criminal records, would require the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to administer the screening for its 374 member schools.

Under the current system, nearly everyone who works in a school is subject to a criminal background check. Sports referees are a rare exception.

“This is to prevent that one tragic situation from happening,’’ said state Representative Carole Fiola, a Fall River Democrat, the bill’s sponsor. “We don’t want to turn around one day and say, ‘How did we not know there could be a problem?’ ”

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A Globe report published in December found a small number of referees on the MIAA’s published list of 7,600 certified athletic officials had serious criminal records, including sexual assaults against minors, illegal gun possession, and trafficking narcotics in a school zone.

Ten days after the story appeared, a Massachusetts high school basketball referee, Julio Resto, allegedly murdered his wife, Gloria, also a school basketball official, in their Waltham home.

“I was a little in awe that there were not criminal background checks being done on the referees,’’ Fiola said.

“I have spent a lot of time volunteering in the classroom, and even under the watchful eye of a teacher, I needed to have my background checked,’’ Fiola said. “I think we need parity in terms of also checking the referees.’’

Richard Pearson, the MIAA’s associate executive director, said the organization is aggressively addressing the issue, exploring the most efficient ways to implement a statewide screening program.

More than 20 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, screen school referees for criminal records, and the national federation of high school athletic associations expects the number to continue increasing.

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“We favor supporting our member schools in the need to consider background checks for officials,’’ Pearson said. “We understand that obligation and responsibility.’’

He said the MIAA’s board of directors has directed a subcommittee to study how the screening could be implemented and is scheduled to receive the panel’s report at a board meeting Feb. 25.

State law requires school employees and volunteers who may have unmonitored, direct access to students to be screened for a criminal record. The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents considers background checks on referees necessary and has asked the MIAA to conduct them.

Some referees argue that the checks should not be required because game officials rarely have unsupervised contact with students. But a number of referee organizations, including the Eastern Massachusetts Lacrosse Officials, have launched their own screening programs, and Tom Lopes, executive director of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, has said he expects every state one day to check referees for criminal records.

The challenge in Massachusetts is complicated by a state regulation that calls for school districts rather than the MIAA to screen workers and for the law to be administered by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The goal I think is for the MIAA to administer it,’’ Pearson said of the screening. “The challenge is to do it fully within the regulation.’’

Schools and athletic conferences hire referees for regular-season games, and the MIAA is responsible for hiring them for all postseason tournaments. Under one possible scenario, the MIAA would compile a list of certified referees who have cleared background checks and schools would hire officials from that list.

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Fiola serves on the board of the Durfee High School Athletic Foundation and has two daughters who played interscholastic sports for Durfee. Her proposal is subject to change through legislative action after a public hearing.

“I have huge respect for referees, but there generally is not much supervision of them when they are in the building before and after games,’’ she said.

Fiola indicated she supports the MIAA’s efforts aimed at implementing a statewide screening program.

“Maybe this will help to move it along,’’ she said of her proposal.


Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.