Tennessee School District Discovers Criminal Histories Among Some Athletic Officials

By Michael Klazema on 10/13/2015
The topic of running background checks on high school athletic officials has been in the news on numerous occasions as of late. The latest headlines involve a Tennessee school district whose new superintendent decided to run background checks on school sporting officials after learning that the state doesn't run those checks itself. What the superintendent discovered shocked him, and for good reason: 10 percent of the background checks came back with red flags.

The officials in question are registered with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, or the TSSAA. A month ago, an on-field incident prompted the TSSAA to suspend one of their football officials. The suspension made statewide headlines, revealing that the TSSAA does not currently run background checks on its officials. The articles about the incident also noted that the TSSAA had added background checks to the topic discussion agenda for a November board meeting.

However, Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney was so alarmed to learn that the TSSAA had no background check policy in place that he decided to do something about it. The result was a new requirement that all officials wishing to referee at Williamson County Schools athletic events pass fingerprint background checks to do so. The district even offered to cover the cost of any officials who submitted to background checks prior to October 9th.

Now, Looney has started to see the results of those background checks, and he's not impressed. Of the 200 background check reports that Williamson has received so far, 20 of them contained serious red flags. The criminal offenses on these background checks include child abuse, sexual assault of a child, statutory rape, prostitution, drug charges, and more. Understandably, many local parents have expressed outrage that individuals with such severe charges were allowed to officiate athletic events involving children and teens.

According to a report from WSMV Channel 4, a Nashville-based NBC affiliate, Looney has stated that he is "angered" and "disappointed" that the TSSAA hadn't already implemented background checks for officials. He said that he doesn't believe it is his school district's responsibility to screen the TSSAA's referees to keep students safe when they are out on the field. However, he also said that he and the rest of the Williamson County School District would do whatever was necessary to protect their students, "even if it takes legislation to do it."

With so much pressure and media chatter, the TSSAA will likely feel inclined to nail down a background check policy for officials at their November meeting. But why did it take so long for a high school sporting association to run background checks on individuals who spend extensive time with minors?

Undoubtedly, other high school sporting associations in other states can learn a lot from this situation. The TSSAA has come under fire because they waited for a media controversy to take action. Associations in other states, if they don't already screen their officials, would be smart to implement policies now. No one, after all, wants it in the news that some of their high school sports referees are sex offenders, child abusers, or drug dealers.

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