Protecting Children at School and at Play

By Michael Klazema on 8/27/2019

One of the most important functions of background checks in any environment is to protect children and teenagers from sexual misconduct and other abuse. From the Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts of America to schools to youth sports organizations, over the years, there have been many examples of adults preying on young, vulnerable victims. Despite the highly public nature of these scandals—and despite the punishments and legislative changes that they brought with them—youth abuse is not going away. 

It has been a decade of record youth abuse scandals:

  • In 2002, the Boston Globe published the results of a detailed investigation exposing a trend of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests.
  • In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach at Penn State University, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing dozens of young boys whom he met through his youth-serving nonprofit organization, The Second Mile.
  • In 2018, Larry Nassar received what amounts to lifetime federal and state prison sentences for sexually abusing hundreds of young women and girls as part of his jobs with United States Gymnastics and Michigan State University.
  • In August 2019, an investigation highlighted more than 200 cases of minor sexual abuse by employees, volunteers, and other associates of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Each of these cases prompted a massive scandal that received major national coverage and ignited debates about how businesses and organizations should protect the minors they serve. 

In several situations, such cases have led to new laws intended to protect children from abusers. In 2015, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a slew of new child protection laws in response to the Sandusky scandal. These laws—which mandate more thorough background checks for people who work with children—are intended to keep sexual predators, child abusers, and other dangerous people away from kids. 

There are some drawbacks to sweeping legal or policy changes regarding abuse. Pennsylvania experienced a background check backlog after implementing new laws. Huntsville City Schools in Huntsville, Alabama, navigated a similar backlog that left teaching positions and other school district jobs vacant as the 2019 school year approached. 

Certain checks take longer than others: a fingerprint background check for employment, for instance—which is a requirement that more and more schools are demanding—tends to take a long time to process. Employers have expressed worries that, with low unemployment rates, background checks might limit an already-sparse talent pool by scaring away eager applicants. 

When schools do a background check, what are they looking for? What about other youth-serving organizations? In most cases, the focus of these checks is detecting criminal history and appearances on sex offender registries, child abuse registries, and similar watch lists. School background checks may also check teacher qualifications such as education, employment history, and licensing and reveal character details through reference checks. 

Youth-serving organizations typically require background checks for staff and volunteers. It’s important for parents to demand such background checks and ensure that the teachers, coaches, bus drivers, and classroom aides their kids are spending time with have been properly vetted. There are other practices that can help protect kids: schools and organizations should prevent situations in which children are alone with adults, and parents should teach their children how to recognize (and report) inappropriate behavior from adults

Ultimately, background checks are the number-one weapon against unsafe and predatory situations for kids at school and at play. Learn how helps to shield businesses and young people from abuse by reading our white paper about youth sports background checks.

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