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 department’s proposals, but are challenging a plan that would include misdemeanors for driving while intoxicated or drug possession as reasons a volunteer coach would be rejected.
The leagues and parks department do agree on steps for improving background checks such as hiring a single vendor to do thorough record searches.
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 July 24 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 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 drop managing the program for the parks department. The association runs the program under a contractual agreement 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. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2014. 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, where White allegedly videotaped a woman inside a tanning salon, and the charge was later amended to trespassing.
Checking misdemeanors might warn the department and leagues 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 in its programs, 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 Lee’s Summit personnel department and the Lee’s Summit Police Department.
Lovell said staff found two Missouri departments using the national association’s standards, Higginsville and Springfield. He told the park board he wanted to understand why there weren’t more departments using that standard before Lee’s Summit adopts it.
Lovell offered the park board several options for the new policy. It could start using vendor for background checks, but hold off on implementing the rule precluding volunteers with the misdemeanor convictions from participation.
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, although when President Marly McMillen polled the board all members support including misdemeanors in disqualifications. It asked Lovell to do more research.
Board member Lawrence Bivins said he supported the toughest rules, but acknowledged it isn’t fail safe. And he understands the opposition, he said. As a volunteer board member, he’d undergo the same scrutiny.
“I’m bothered by it a little bit and I have nothing to hide, nothing at all.” Bivins said. “None of this is going to catch some people.”
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.”