A 51-year-old Illinois man has been sentenced to prison for failing to register as a sex offender. Per a report from the Belleville News-Democrat, Dennis Cotton served as a youth sports umpire and referee for Smithton School District for about a year. A police investigation uncovered a sexual offense in Cotton’s past. The offense took place in Arizona in 2003 and required him to register as a sex offender—a step he never took.
Per coverage, Cotton has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to register as a sex offender. Cotton’s actions mean that when he gets out of prison, he must register as a sex offender again and remain on sex offender registries for the rest of his life.
Since Cotton was not on the sex offender registry, the Illinois High School Association—the body that maintains a database of active high school athletics in the state—did not realize his status, reports explain. Neither did Smithton School District, which hired Cotton without checking the IHSA registry: Cotton’s IHSA license had lapsed when the school hired him. The district claims that it assumed Cotton was not on the sex offender registry because he had been a part of the IHSA database.
While there are no allegations of harm to students during Cotton’s time as a Smithton youth sports referee, his hiring did raise questions about background checks at the state level, coverage notes. Pending legislation would require the IHSA to conduct fingerprint background checks of all sporting officials. Per school administrators, the hope is that more thorough checks will help to spot serious sex offenses and other criminal issues even for applicants who have neglected to register as offenders.
While the new legislation is pending, school district officials in Smithton have adopted measures they claim will ensure that athletic officials are safe and trustworthy. As reports explain, the district is conducting its own state criminal and sex offender background checks, even on referees and umpires who are part of the IHSA database. In-state background checks would not have prevented Cotton from being hired in the first place because his prior offense took place in Arizona.