A Dallas area cheer and dance coach was arrested while attempting to board a flight for France on charges of molesting three of his students. (Full Story Here). A variety of stories are posted on the internet that detail various aspects of the case. These articles paint a picture that is far too familiar. Moreover, the articles and the comments of the police highlight a growing myth in risk management that frankly is reaching the point of creating as much or more risk to the participants than it prevents. The issue again, is the over-reliance on background checks, and the myth that conducting a background check somehow absolves the association of the need to do anything further.
Let’s be clear. Criminal background checks are a good thing. They serve a purpose as one part of a risk management plan. However, they are simply that. One part. Let’s remember that criminal background checks have very clear limitations:
- They only detect people who have previous criminal convictions. Since a NIMH study reported that the average child molester begins molesting by age 15, engages in a variety of deviant behavior, and molests an average of 117 youngsters, most of whom do not report the offense, it is clear that much abuse takes place well before the initial arrest or conviction of an offender. Those people will not be caught by a criminal background check.
- There is no national database for criminal background checks available to private parties.
- Each state has different standards for what offenses are reported to their state database.
- Many background checks screen by how recent and how serious the offenses are. Older, minor offenses may not cause a background screen to return with a red flag.
- Most background checks will not detect civil actions such as lawsuits or restraining orders.
Yet despite these known shortcomings of background checks, the police in this case still made the extraordinary statement that “”[t]he gym did the background checks. They did everything they needed to do to ensure to themselves and to the parents and the children that it was a safe environment to be.” But the reports received to date suggest that there were many red flags that a good risk management program would address. Let’s look at some of the reported facts:
- The coach had worked for three gyms in a short period of time.
- The coach was fired from one gym for inappropriate communication.
- The coach had pictures of himself shirtless with young girls in bikini type clothing on his publicly viewable social media page.
- The coach was known to offer private lessons to some girls.
- At least one gymnast reported that he was “creepy” and made her feel “uncomfortable.”
Even setting aside the subjective feelings of a young gymnast, how many issues are identified that a good risk management program addresses? The private lessons are extra-organizational contact, time with students away from the supervised environment of the gym. Why was this permitted by the gym? Did the screening include looking at his social media pages, which showed him shirtless with young girls in non-gym settings? What type of reference checking was done between the three gyms he worked at, or was he considered a “prize catch” who might bring new students/customers with him, so checking with a competitor was not considered? Who did the gym that fired him for inappropriate communication report that to? Child protection? Police? A sanctioning body? Or did they just let him go on his way? The inappropriate communication was via text message. Were there no policies prohibiting the coaching staff from texting minor children?
And I have one simple question: Other than running a criminal background check, what was your risk management plan? Far too often, the answer is nothing. So, finally, can we please stop pretending that running a criminal background check is “doing everything” that can be done. It is doing one small part; but it is not addressing the far greater risks that are out there. And that is the danger of the criminal background check. People see it as a cure-all or a get out of jail free card. What it ought to be seen as is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle. And if you only place the one piece, not only are you not finished, you have barely started.