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YOUTH sports leagues requiring coaching background checks

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PLANTATION, Fla. (AP) _ Board members of the Plantation Athletic League have read the newspaper accounts and heard the tales of children suffering from abusive coaches.

To their knowledge, no one has ever abused a child or become violent on their sandlot ballfields. But they don't want to take any chances.

``There's definitely going to be some liabilities somewhere,'' said Doug Golden, a Plantation coach. ``And some city is going to pay for it.''

The league expects to require criminal background checks for all coaches beginning next fall. With more than 4,000 young athletes and 1,000 coaches, league officials say they want to err on the side of safety.

``We want to make sure that we don't have someone who has a violent history or a child molestation charge who is exposed to the children,'' said Bill Bzdek, vice president of the volunteer league.

Screaming headlines of violence and mistrust at youth sporting events have caught the attention of parents and raised interest in the checks.

_ In Reading, Mass., a parent was beaten to death while supervising his son's hockey pickup game last July. Authorities say another father became upset at rough play and fought with the parent.

_ In Jonesboro, Ga., a youth baseball coach who had been convicted of sodomy was charged with child molestation in February. Police said the man fondled a 7-year-old boy at his house.

_ In Charlestown, Mass., an 18-year-old man pleaded innocent in January to charges he molested nine boys, some of whom were under his charge as a youth sports coach. He had worked as a youth hockey and baseball coach, a lifeguard and a Pop Warner football disc jockey.

``All of these things have made parents sit back and say 'Wait a minute,''' said Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, in West Palm Beach.

Engh said children spend an average of 80 hours per season with their coaches and volunteers. But only in the last few years have leagues begun to require the background checks, he said.

``There's not a conscientious parent in America who would take their children to a day care center and just drop them off without knowing whose taking care of their child,'' Engh said. ``And that's exactly what they do with youth leagues.''

With most leagues locally controlled, no one knows precisely how many leagues require background checks, costing between $15 to $33 per review. Engh estimates that only 1 to 2 percent of the 2,000 community-based organizations in partnership with his alliance conduct the tests.

Engh's organization recently started a nationwide pilot program with five youth leagues to assess the effectiveness of the tests.

Randy Rodebaugh, president of Southeastern Security Consultants in Marietta, Ga., which will conduct the federal and state criminal checks, said the leagues have become a new marketplace for his service.

``Everyone we've talked to has an extreme interest,'' Rodebaugh said. ``It's something that's going to take off. Everybody wants to do it.''

In Aiken, S.C., one of the participants, recreation coordinator Kim Coleman said that in order to ensure privacy, she is the only person who sees the records. If a background check turns up a questionable past, Coleman confers with the coach privately.

The league has already taken small steps to prepare for the checks, telling coaches that they might conduct the tests and surveying parents. An overwhelming majority of parents wanted the checks, Coleman said.

``I would much rather pay $15 per coach than having something happen to a child,'' Coleman said.

In Plantation, most parents said they, too, support the changes.

``It's good for everyone. The parents can drop their child off at practice and feel comfortable,'' said Mark Steele, who helps coach his 7-year-old son.

``There are some coaches who take the fun out of the game,'' said Michael Schloss, a lawyer and parent. ``The focus is supposed to be the children having fun.''
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