County might ease policy on barring youth coaches

Felony convictions forced 20 to resign

November 20, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County recreation officials whose criminal background checks recently forced 20 coaches to resign from youth athletic teams are considering a policy change that could allow some coaches with a single drug offense to continue working with children.

"Right now, I am leaning toward the change," Dennis Callahan, the county's director of recreation and parks, said yesterday of the proposed policy modification, which was approved this month by half of the county's 12 recreation association presidents and the seven-member Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee.

The proposal was made in the wake of concerns expressed by coaches and parents that the county's policy, which prohibits coaches with felony convictions from participating in youth sports, is too harsh. Some residents think coaches should be allowed to explain convictions, especially for crimes committed when they were young.

"A person who gets into a barroom scuffle or gets caught driving while intoxicated should be given a chance to explain him- or herself," the Jessup Provinces Youth Organization, one of several groups pushing for the policy revision, said in a letter.

The county's Department of Recreation and Parks began investigating coaches' backgrounds last year after media accounts detailed the sexual abuse of young athletes by trusted coaches.

County officials say Anne Arundel is the only county in the state to conduct background checks.

Of the county's 6,000 coaches, 1,550 have been checked. Of those, 20 coaches with convictions for such crimes as assault, battery, robbery and manslaughter were pulled from their teams.

Two other coaches, one of whom was not coaching at the time, were told to refrain from coaching until their court cases had been tried. One of those two subsequently dropped out of the sports program, officials said.

The county's coaching manual says anyone with a drug conviction is not permitted to coach. Coaches also attest in writing that their backgrounds are clean before they are assigned a team.

"What we found is that some of these people had been flying under false colors," said Frank Marzucco, an administrator with the Department of Recreation and Parks who telephoned coaches recently to tell them they had been dismissed.

Marzucco said criminal background checks of the rest of the county's coaches will be conducted soon or as they sign up for spring or summer leagues.

The proposed policy change would still call for dismissal in cases of a drug-trafficking conviction but would eliminate drug possession as grounds for dismissal. Convictions in the recent past - less than a decade ago - would not be considered for leniency under the proposed policy.

Coaches with drug convictions would be allowed to return as assistant coaches only. The county plans to begin background checks of assistant coaches next year.

The revised policy, which could allow two of the coaches recently cut from the county's youth athletic program to win reinstatement, could go into effect July 1, said Callahan, whose approval is required. Association presidents and head coaches would have the final say on whether take back a coach, he said.

"The six association presidents who didn't want the change wouldn't have to take the person back if they didn't want to," said Callahan, who recently spoke with representatives from Harford and Baltimore counties about setting up background-check programs.

Callahan said he is considering approving the revised policy because of testimony from coaches and parents who he said are worried that the background checks could be unfair to coaches who might have made a mistake in their youth and mended their ways.

To protect children, Callahan said, he would rather stick to the stricter policy.

"Personally, I don't think the message should be that `I can do drugs and then grow up to be a coach,'" said Callahan. "When people say to me, `But what if they have changed their ways?' I say, `Well, that's not our business.' We want to make parents and grandparents comfortable."

Dave Cope, president of the Jessup Provinces Youth Organization, is among those who want more leniency for coaches with one drug conviction. He has also proposed that officials set up an appeals board so that coaches could explain their criminal records and possibly be reappointed.

"I just believe that this one-strike-you're-out policy is unfair," Cope said.

Others worry that such an appeals board could get bogged down in details that have been heard and weighed by judges and juries. Legal concerns also have been expressed.

"What if the appeals board decided to let a person return to coaching and then something happened? We would be liable," said Bill Sabia, chairman of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee and president of the Arundel Recreation Association. "None of us is willing to take on that liability."

In the most recent background checks, conducted after the 20 dismissals, Kroll Background America, the company hired to perform the checks, reviewed the criminal records of about 450 basketball coaches and newly certified coaches, and none was dismissed, officials said yesterday.

"I don't believe that was coincidental," said Callahan. "I see this program as a deterrent. The word is out there that if you have a problem, then you better not sign up to coach."

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