Smithton School District officials assumed that since Dennis G. Cotton carried an Illinois High School Association patch on his sleeve that there was no danger in having the Swansea man officiate basketball and baseball games in the district.
On Monday morning, school officials learned Cotton, who had officiated games for at least a year in the district, was a registered sex offender. Cotton, 51, was arrested Tuesday afternoon after an investigation by the Swansea Police Department. He was charged with one felony and four misdemeanors Tuesday by the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes called the situation “extremely disturbing.”
“We are extremely thankful that no incidents occurred with any of our children,” she said. “But this situation should open the eyes of every school district in the state.”
Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson said his department was alerted to Cotton working as an umpire for the Smithton district by another law enforcement agency. Johnson said Cotton did not disclose that he was working for the district on a sex offender registry form. Cotton is in the Illinois sex offender database because of a November 2003 Arizona conviction for an offense involving a 15-year-old.
Johnson said an investigation showed that Cotton was once licensed as an official by the IHSA, the governing body over high school athletics in the state. Johnson said Cotton had let his IHSA membership lapse but was still acting as if he was certified with the association. According to the IHSA’s website, officials’ licenses expire June 30 each year. Johnson said the IHSA doesn’t conduct background checks on its game officials. The association instead relies on people to self-report.
“There’s a question on the application,” Johnson said. “Are you a registered sex offender? If you mark, no, within five minutes, you get your credentials. In talking with the professionals from the IHSA, they have discussed background checks and have been working toward that.”
The IHSA released a statement to media on Wednesday night. It said that Cotton had been suspended from officiating IHSA games on Sept. 14 after they were made aware of his status as a registered sex offender.
“While the official was not hired for the game in Smithton via the IHSA officials database where his suspension is posted, it does bring to light the need for the IHSA to evaluate better ways to make this information available to schools in Illinois who are not IHSA members, but who hire licensed IHSA officials for contests,” the IHSA said in its statement. “We will continue to utilize partners like the Illinois State Police and other outside resources to identify and restrict officials who do not meet the standards of the IHSA from officiating athletic contests in Illinois."
Nowhere on the IHSA’s website does it say officials are subjected to any form of background check before being licensed.
“To become an IHSA official, you’ll need to submit an online application,” the IHSA website reads, “and, after you’ve received a rule book from the IHSA, take an online, open-book rules examination. In your first season of being licensed you’ll also need to watch an online rules presentation that will introduce you to the latest rule changes and interpretations and attend a clinic that will teach you the fundamentals of good officiating.”
Homes said her office took immediate action once learning of Cotton’s status. On Tuesday night, Homes sent a two-page letter to all parents in the district to update them on the situation.
“We have also been told that the arrest was based on the individual’s failure to follow the guidelines of the sex offender act — not the result of injury to any minor child,” Homes wrote in the letter. “At no time was the official alone with students and, at all events in which he officiated, coaches and other adults were present at all times.
Homes said Cotton had officiated basketball games last winter as well as baseball games this spring. She said he officiated games involving seventh- and eighth-grade students. Referees are paid $60 a game, Homes said.
Johnson said he has reached out to other schools in the area to let them know that there are no official criminal background checks done by IHSA-licensed officials. He understands why parents would be concerned after Cotton’s arrest.
“You wonder who is standing right behind your kid without even knowing,” Johnson said.
Homes said her district will now check sex offender and murder registries in Illinois before hiring game officials.
“We will no longer assume that an individual with an IHSA officiating license is not on the sex offender registry,” Homes wrote in her letter.
Homes said the school district will double check to make sure all of its officials are licensed, but said there are difficulties in doing that. Because the Smithton district is a kindergarten through eighth-grade district, it is not allowed access to the IHSA’s list of licensed officials. She said the only way for the district to get access to that list is to have an employee go through the process of becoming a licensed official or by having a high school district verify the status of the official’s license.
Homes said that process is flawed. A school district employee completed an IHSA officials application on Tuesday so that the district could have access to the list of licensed officials.
In addition to the felony charge, Cotton was charged with four counts of unlawful presence in a public park by a child sex offender. The misdemeanor charges allege Cotton was in a public park illegally on four different dates in August.
According to St. Clair County Circuit Clerk records, Cotton was on probation from a May 2016 felony unlawful failure to register as a sex offender case. He was sentenced to 13 months of probation on June 27.
Cotton is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing on Oct. 7. If convicted of the felony, Cotton could be sentenced to between three and seven years in prison. The misdemeanor charges carry with them a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail.
Judge John Baricevic signed an arrest warrant and set Cotton’s bail at $40,000. Cotton was being held Wednesday in the St. Clair County Jail.