August 6, 2013

Lee’s Summit parks department proposes tough background checks for youth sports coaches

One unresolved question centers on whether some misdemeanors should disqualify coaches and other volunteers.

The Lee’s Summit’s parks department wants to tighten background checks of volunteers and employees to protect thousands of children in youth leagues from sex predators or other dangerous adults.

Youth sports leaders agree with most of the proposals, but are challenging a plan to include misdemeanors for driving while intoxicated or drug possession as reasons a volunteer coach would be rejected.

No one questions screening for sex offenders. Or for felonies like murder.

But youth-league leaders contend the department is going too far by including some misdemeanors. Anyone can make a mistake, they said.

“We’re debating the meaning of who’s a good person and who’s a bad person. That’s a slippery slope,” said Kent Lauer, president of the Lee’s Summit Baseball Association.

He said it’s a hard job recruiting 150 coaches a year for his league. Under the proposed standards, Lauer said, eight of his coaches this year would have been rejected. Three had been coaching for years, he said.

“They’re outstanding coaches, and they are no threat to those kids,” Lauer said.

The Park Board met last month in a work session with the presidents of the Lee’s Summit Soccer Association, the Lee’s Summit Girls Softball Association, Lee’s Summit Football Association and Lee’s Summit Baseball Association to discuss the issue, then talked about it more in a regular business meeting afterward.

League officials also expressed concern that their organizations could be sued if a rejected volunteer challenges the standards.

“Defamation of character, that’s millions. We don’t want to get into that,” said Ron Cox, president of the soccer association.

Stan Workman, president of girls softball, hinted that if the park board follows through with rejecting volunteers because of misdemeanors, that league might not continue managing the program for the parks department. The association runs the program in return for using city fields.

The issue stems from an incident in April when a Lee’s Summit Soccer Association coach was charged in federal court with attempting to produce child pornography.

Joel White, of Lee’s Summit, allegedly secretly videotaped members of his soccer team at his own home. He coached an under-12 and under-15 girls soccer team before his arrest.

White had cleared background checks made at the time, which failed to pick up a misdemeanor charge of eavesdropping, accusing White of videotaped a woman inside a tanning salon. The charge was later amended to trespassing.

Checking misdemeanors might provide warning of a potential problems in the future, but it wouldn’t always work. White’s trespassing conviction isn’t included among the list of crimes that would disqualify a volunteer.

Parks Administrator Tom Lovell said the department staff wants to encourage the leagues to use best practices, from safety to finance.

He explained that the proposed standard is one adapted from the National Recreation and Parks Association. It was reviewed and supported by the city personnel and police departments.

Lovell said staff found two Missouri departments using the national association’s standards, Higginsville and Springfield. He told the park board that he wanted to understand why more departments aren’t using that standard before Lee’s Summit adopts it.

Park board member Hope Davis got support from the other members for her suggestion that the department survey parents in the youth leagues to ask their opinions. She said the league officials should be involved in preparing the survey.

The board agreed to delay a decision to get a survey of parents, but when President Marly McMillen polled the board, all members supported including misdemeanors in disqualifications. The board asked Lovell to do more research.

In a statement this week, Lovell said there are many points of agreement.

“For instance, we agree on the need for a community universal system that allows volunteers cleared to work in one organization to also be approved for the other participating organizations. We agree with the need for a standard criteria. We agree that felons and persons convicted of sexual offenses should not be eligible to be volunteers in these settings,” he said.

“But still there are areas in need of fine tuning and that is exactly what the park board based their decision on.”

Board member Brian Hutchin said he fully supports including misdemeanors as a reason for disqualification.

“Our job here is to protect kids at all cost,” Hutchin said. “This is about kids, not a volunteer.”

In his statement Lovell also said another part of the solution is to develop training programs to help parents and children recognize inappropriate behavior and know how to respond.

“Lee’s Summit is a very safe community with dedicated and wonderful volunteers that serve in our area churches, schools, private organizations and parks,” Lovell said. “We simply need to continue and enhance the methods we use to insure in as far as possible the safety of our children.”

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