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Youth coaching rules to change

Under a new policy, certain crimes would disqualify hopefuls and county employees would have the final say on appeals.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published January 31, 2007


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TAMPA - Armand Cotnoir spent more than a year in federal prison but was still allowed to coach a youth football team in Plant City.

Lee Arthur Chavis failed a county background check, which showed more than a half dozen arrests - including one accusing him of aggravated battery on a pregnant woman. But he asked for a second chance to coach football and got it.

Two months later, Chavis was back in jail, accused of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl.

Hillsborough County officials couldn't say for sure how many more volunteers with criminal pasts took the field after showing remorse and pleading their cases to a volunteer appeals board.

"There are no records," said John Brill, spokesman for Hillsborough County parks and recreation.

He said the county performs at least 5,000 background checks a year, which include applications from prospective employees, seasonal workers and volunteers.

"We don't break it out for coaches specifically," Brill said, so there's no way to know how many of those flagged on a background check were eventually approved to coach youth sports on county fields.

But the process and the way giving out second chances are handled is about to change.

The County Attorney's Office is reviewing a new policy that would take appeals out of the hands of volunteers and leave final decisions with county employees.

"We're going to have the final say-so," Brill said. "If we're going to be held responsible, then we're going to be the ones that make the decision."

County officials decided to change the process after high-profile incidents with coaches. Chavis, whom the appeals board approved, was arrested. Cotnoir, a former Plant City police officer, who pleaded guilty to several charges including conspiracy to deprive civil rights, never got a background check because his team submitted its coaches' names late, the county said. He was asked to stop coaching after his background came to light, but an appeals board later let him continue.

The new system would take effect as soon as the county approves it, which is expected soon.

Some of the proposed changes would bar coaches who are convicted of certain crimes, which they could not appeal.

The disqualifying crimes being considered are any sex crime; felony violence; a felony other than violence or sex within the past 10 years, including fraud; all misdemeanor violence within the past seven years; all misdemeanor drug- and alcohol-related offenses within five years or multiple offenses within 10 years; and any other misdemeanor in the past five years considered a threat to children.

"It's going to more of a situation where there's a lot of subjectivity taken out," Brill said. "Hopefully, we don't have people falling through the cracks, like we did in the past."

Some members in the youth sports community don't mind the change.

"We collectively put our heads together and decide if they're sincere enough or the offense warranted keeping them from coaching," said Greg Aghoian, chairman of the volunteer appeals committee. "Once the new regulations ... are set into place, it will certainly take a lot of the onus off our community, because it will be more black and white as opposed to now."

Seth Adams, who coaches the Brandon Cowboys, said he's "all for those changes."

"We are volunteering time as well as mentoring to the upbringing of children," Adams said. "My demeanor and my actions have a bearing on the way those children behave, and allowing people with criminal behavior to have some kind of bearing on kids could set them up for a fall."

Despite the lack of records, Brill was able to provide a snapshot of appeals cases decided at a meeting in September. There, 10 of the 11 coaches who appealed were allowed to coach, Brill said.

Besides the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database, Hillsborough parks and recreation uses e7 Sports, an Internet tool from Orange County, Calif., for performing nationwide background checks. The company partners with Dallas' backgroundchecks.com.

In Hillsborough, Brill said, a revamped list of questions on the volunteer application should also eliminate some of the problems. People aren't always truthful when they fill out the form, Brill said. Some check "No" when asked if they have ever been arrested, because they were never convicted. Others have used the excuse that they forgot, because it was so long ago.

"I have a problem with people who say, 'I have forgotten,' " Aghoian said. "I've never been arrested, but everyone I've talked to who has says they'll never forget. So if you've been arrested and fail to disclose, we have a problem."

Aghoian said there have been extenuating circumstances. People have come to him to appeal nonviolent crimes, like writing a bad check 10 years ago.

People who came prepared with documents to show the disposition of their cases got more consideration than those who showed up to appeal with no paperwork or witnesses.

"Unfortunately, people make mistakes, and I think that when they have done their time and atoned for those things, I've got to somehow give them a chance," Aghoian said. "But I'm not sure how to handle that. I'm not sure it's fair to say never. I'll be really happy when they do redo this thing, because ... volunteers will know if you've done (certain crimes), don't bother."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 31, 2007, 01:49:28]


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