The state’s 8,000 high school referees for the first time will be screened for criminal records under a school safety program unanimously approved Wednesday by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s board of directors.
Closing one of the last gaps in protecting students from school workers, the MIAA plans to launch the initiative this summer to ensure every referee and umpire who interacts with student-athletes submits to a criminal background check. The MIAA governs interscholastic athletics for 374 schools in the commonwealth.
The vote came nearly two months after a Globe investigation of school referees with criminal records and two weeks after state Representative Carole Fiola filed legislation aimed at compelling the MIAA to check the criminal histories of game officials.
An MIAA committee began studying the issue more than a year ago, at the urging of several South Shore athletic directors.
“This is a big step in terms of becoming more actively engaged with a group of people who have been working with our kids,’’ said Richard Pearson, the MIAA’s associate executive director, who oversaw the initiative.
The Globe review found a small number of referees on the MIAA’s published list of 8,000 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, was charged with murdering his wife, Gloria, also a school basketball official, in their Waltham home.
Massachusetts becomes the 28th state to require criminal background checks of officials. Under the plan, which MIAA executives said may be amended before it is fully implemented, each game official will undergo a comprehensive screening by the spring of 2016.
The state’s referees have been widely divided over the issue, with many supporting background checks to beef up student safety, and many others saying the checks would be an unnecessary and costly nuisance.
The MIAA plans to cover the costs of the program — estimated at $280,000 to $320,000 for the first year — by charging officials $35 to $40 per screening. The association plans to hire a Utah-based company, Peopletrail, to conduct the checks, which will include reviews of federal, state, and county criminal records, as well as sex offender registries, and databases dedicated to tracking terrorism and drug trafficking suspects.
Many referees in Massachusetts also work in youth and recreational programs that require them to pay to have their backgrounds checked through the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system. Other referees have been checked because they work in the schools in other capacities, such as teaching or coaching.
One group with reservations about the new program is the Eastern Massachusetts Soccer Officials Association.
“We will support the efforts of the MIAA to conduct across-the-board CORI checks on all sports officials,’’ said Tom Stagliano, the association’s president. “However, since well over 40 percent of sports officials are currently school teachers and administrators who are already subjected to a CORI, we believe that the MIAA should work with the school superintendents to arrive at one CORI database for all teachers, administrators, workers, school volunteers, and sports officials across the entire commonwealth. An individual should only be subjected to one CORI process, which is the most cost-effective and efficient method.’’
MIAA executives said the new background checks will be far more thorough than a CORI screening. Also, they are not expected to be sympathetic to complaints about the new program’s costs. Referees can earn nearly $150 a day for a few hours officiating junior varsity and varsity games.
“We have volunteers and chaperones in our schools who are being fingerprinted for a $35 fee, and they receive no financial benefit,’’ said Mike Schultz, the assistant principal and athletic director at Carver Middle High School, who helped to develop the new screening program. “We feel that a $35-$40 fee for an official to make a profit [refereeing] is not a huge financial commitment.’’
Under the new program, game officials may be barred from working in schools for offenses involving violence, threats of violence, drugs, sexual assault, and crimes against minors, among other bad deeds.
Any game official who is charged with a crime may be immediately suspended until the case is resolved. But even if a charge is dismissed, the MIAA will review the circumstances before deciding whether to clear the official.
Referees who are disqualified may appeal twice to separate MIAA review panels.
The plan calls for all officials to be rescreened every five years, although some MIAA board members said they would prefer the span be reduced to three years.
Many Massachusetts school officials believe the MIAA is best suited to administer the new program.
“We have 200 to 300 officials come through our doors every year,’’ said Cohasset High School athletic director Ron Ford, who helped design the new program. “It would be impossible for each school to conduct individual background checks.’’
The 21 members of the MIAA board, predominantly school principals and athletic directors, applauded the new the program after granting their approval.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.