Coach background checks investigated

ST. PAUL - Many coaches working with Minnesota school children are hired without first submitting to a criminal background check. That's surprising to many, and some lawmakers want to do something about it. Though most, if not all, head coaches i...

ST. PAUL - Many coaches working with Minnesota school children are hired without first submitting to a criminal background check.

That's surprising to many, and some lawmakers want to do something about it.

Though most, if not all, head coaches in Minnesota's schools undergo criminal background checks, the same precaution is not always taken for assistant and volunteer coaches.

"It's important to have a consistent policy regarding background checks on coaches," said Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove. "We don't want some districts to do it and some don't. If someone has a predisposition to prey on children, they'll find the holes in the system."

Bigham is sponsoring a bill in the House that mandates criminal background checks for all coaches. The Senate version of the bill already passed by a unanimous vote and representatives should vote on their version in the coming days.


"Some stories in the news made me think it would be a good idea," said Bigham.

Bigham said that inappropriate behavior by coaches seems to regularly make headlines. Offenses range from alleged sexual relationships with students, as in Coon Rapids and Hastings, for example, to poor judgment, as in the recent case of a Woodbury assistant coach allegedly providing beer to students.

"We are disappointed in our profession when a person acts unethically or immorally," said John Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. "Coaches help model tomorrow's future. We want moral and ethical leaders."

Erickson said his organization supports requiring background checks for coaches. He said budgetary issues and a lack of teachers who want to be coaches force school districts to hire from outside the district.

"It's a major problem for schools that are having to fill coaching vacancies with people who aren't professional teachers," said Erickson.

Background checks on teachers have been required since 1995, but the law does not extend to coaches.

"If teachers have to do it, I think something similar for coaches is the right thing to do," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a former teacher and cross country running coach for 29 years.

Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, agrees the legislation makes sense.


"I think we need to keep our kids safe," Swails said.

Swails teaches English at Woodbury High School, where a 21-year-old assistant wrestling coach was turned in by students who said he offered them beer during a state wrestling tournament. The coach's salary was paid by a local booster club. Because he was a school employee, he had undergone a background check, according to Principal Linda Plante. The assistant coach no longer has his job.

"A criminal background check would not have revealed that he's the kind of person that was going to do that," said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, sponsor of the background check bill in the Senate. "But if he's convicted of something, and it is a gross misdemeanor, in the future when he goes to help out on a regular basis on any kind of athletic program, that criminal background check is going to show that - if he's charged and found guilty."

Rest said though a criminal record does not automatically disqualify an applicant from getting hired, she believes a background check requirement will give parents piece of mind.

"It's a first level of assurance that at least parents can know that the district has done the first thing to protect their kids," said Rest.

The proposal has wide support from the state's athletic association and schools.

Any person who regularly has contact with public school students would also be subject to a background check. The cost of the check is $15 and the applicant would be required to pay the fee. That $15 pays for a search of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The search goes back 15 years and does not include an FBI check or a search outside the state.

Some people think the background check for school employees should be more extensive.


Another bill, which neither chamber has passed, would give school districts the option to hire a private company to do a deeper background check on potential hires.

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators is pushing for passage of Simon's bill.

"We're at a point right now where everybody working directly with kids should get a background check," Executive Director Charlie Kyte said.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, has taught social studies at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School for 25 years, and was a wrestling coach there 21 years.

He said requiring background checks for all school coaches is a good idea.

"The more protection for students the better," said Marquart. "The thing to keep in mind is 99.9 percent of coaches are professional. A few rotten apples shouldn't spoil the whole batch."

Marquart called recent cases of coach misconduct "very unfortunate."

"It simply can't be tolerated," said Marquart. "Any method to screen out those with problems in their past I think is a good way to go."


"Background checks aren't going to check future behavior," Marquart said. "What happened in that (Woodbury) case is just plain stupidity. And how do you legislate stupidity? What they tell you in training is you have to keep that professional boundary between you and your students. That's huge. Even more so the younger you are."

Marisa Helms works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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