Referees cry foul over school screening rules

They've threatened to quit officiating here, saying the Lunsford Act is too strict, too pricey.

Published March 14, 2007

INVERNESS - Referees showed up at a School Board meeting Tuesday and threatened to stop coming to sporting events in Citrus County unless the district changes its screening requirements.

A trio of referees with the Mid-Florida Officials Association complained that the stringent fingerprinting rules of the Jessica Lunsford Act have discouraged many people from officiating high school sports.

They complained about the $61 background checks and the recurring fees to renew their badges, saying they present a financial burden on already overtaxed sports officials.

The board said it is playing by the rules. When it comes to protecting children, members said, there is little room for compromise.

The Jessica Lunsford Act requires that schools make certain that all contract workers, including sports officials, have cleared a federal and state criminal check before coming on campus.

Sports officials said they agree with the intent of the law, but feel they're being singled out.

Reid Sergent, a football and basketball referee from Citrus Springs, said it was not fair for referees to go through the screenings when people on the stands and other visitors don't have to be checked.

"We're a dying breed," Sergent said, noting that the state lost 25 percent of sports referees when all 67 school districts implemented the stricter screening requirements in 2005.

Jeff Nakamura, a volleyball official and an officer with Mid-Florida Officials Association, said referees shouldn't have to jump through so many hoops to help schools.

Referees resent the costs, the different badges they must bring to games in different counties, and giving sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or their birth dates.

"I was treated like a second-class citizen before all of this and now I feel like a criminal," he said. "If we can't come to some sort of resolution, we won't come to Citrus County."

Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel said the district has bent over backwards to try to accommodate sports officials.

She has agreed to waive the $10 annual fees for referees to renew their badges in Citrus. Beyond that, there is little the district can do, she said.

"We didn't write the law," Himmel said.

Board member Pat Deutschman said she didn't think the district should try to relax the screening rules for referees.

Board members must present photo identification when they walk into schools.

"And we sign their paychecks," she said. "We set that standard for ourselves. I don't know that we should lower it for anyone else."

Board member Lou Miele said there is little room for negotiation when children's safety is at stake.

"We need your cooperation," he said. "We don't need people complaining to us.

"We have to know who you are when you come to the field," Miele added.