Craig Anderson wasn’t happy when he heard the news that a man who was an Illinois High School Association official in the metro-east was a registered sex offender.
“You feel terrible that it’s happened, that an official could be on the field that is a sex offender,” said Anderson, who has been the IHSA’s executive director since January. “I felt better that we had him blocked.”
On Sept. 14, the Bloomington-based organization that sanctions high school athletics in Illinois blocked Dennis G. Cotton, 51, of Swansea, from serving as an IHSA official. Anderson said his organization took the action after receiving “some information” about Cotton.
But by then, Cotton had already worked basketball and baseball games for the Smithton School District for at least a year. Dozens of children, without knowing it, were within an arm’s reach of a man who was required to register as a sex offender due to a November 2003 Arizona conviction for an offense involving a 15-year-old girl.
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Because Cotton allegedly failed to report his work as an umpire as part of his sex offender registry requirements, he was arrested Tuesday by Swansea police for a sex offender registry violation — a felony charge that could land him in prison for between three and seven years if convicted. He also faces four misdemeanor charges of unlawful presence in a public park by a sex offender.
His arrest left many asking how a registered sex offender could be certified to officiate by the state association. The arrest also has local lawmakers working to quickly close what they consider to be an overlooked loophole.
The IHSA doesn’t require its game officials to go through background checks. Anderson said the IHSA has considered having its game officials pass background checks before they are certified, but there is one major hurdle: It has a lot do to with cost.
“To do a full-scale background check is costly,” he said. “It’s not like we can just pass the cost on to officials. We have areas of the state that are lacking officials. This is something that we will review with the board of directors and see if we want to implement some form of background check.”
To do a full-scale background check is costly. It’s not like we can just pass the cost on to officials. We have areas of the state that are lacking officials. This is something that we will review with the board of directors and see if we want to implement some form of background check.
Craig Anderson, IHSA executive director
Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson said a fingerprint background check would provide the most complete coverage.
“You could do a background check with someone’s name and date of birth,” Johnson said, “but is that as accurate as a fingerprint check? No.”
A fingerprint background check would cost approximately $50, Johnson said.
State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, said Friday he’s working with Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, to pass legislation addressing the issue. They are co-sponsoring a bill, House Bill 6608.
“This is something that, unfortunately, seems to have fallen through the cracks,” Costello said. “It’s something that we need to rectify immediately to make sure sexual predators are not around our children.”
Costello said he thinks there could be legislation requiring sports officials to undergo digital fingerprinting, which he said is available at numerous private vendors for a nominal fee. Digital fingerprints are checked against police databases. A number of occupations in Illinois require digital fingerprinting, along with applicants for concealed-carry gun permits.
“There are a number of private vendors that offer digital fingerprinting,” Costello said. “It’s a fairly minimal cost.”
There are a number of private vendors that offer digital fingerprinting. It’s a fairly minimal cost.
State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton
Beiser said the legislation would require the IHSA to conduct background checks on everyone who applies to be an umpire or referee at high school sports events. The proposal bans the organization from hiring anyone who is required to register as a sex offender or violent offender against youth.
Beiser said action is urgently needed.
“I am not willing to wait for the IHSA to put background checks in place for officials at sporting events,” he said. “This must be done immediately to protect children across the state.”
The question for Anderson and the IHSA is how in-depth the background checks would need to be, and who would pay the bill if the association starts to require background checks of game officials.
Requiring background checks would be no simple task. During the 2015-16 school year, the IHSA issued 19,050 licenses to a total of 12,246 officials. IHSA leaders said many officials are licensed in multiple sports. The IHSA charges officials $50 per license with a $15 charge for each additional sport. Officials’ licenses expire on June 30 each year.
Budgeting $50 per background check would cost about $612,300 to have each of those officials checked. An additional cost could force some officials out of the games.
Anderson said the IHSA has researched how neighboring states deal with background checks for game officials. The Missouri State High School Activities Association requires its game officials to undergo a background check for sex offender status. Anderson said state high school athletic associations in Indiana and Wisconsin also require background checks for its game officials.
“There are a variety of companies that would do (background checks) for us,” Anderson said. “The one thing that (former IHSA Executive Director) Marty (Hickman) believed and I did, up until this point, is that officials generally come into a school or a field of play and officiate the game and walk out. At no time are they alone, which is much different than a coach.”
Anderson, who previously served as assistant executive director with the association and is in his seventh year working for the organization, said the IHSA used to run its officials database against the Illinois State Police’s sex offender registry with help from state police. That hasn’t been done for a few years, Anderson said, because the group’s contact with the state police no longer works there.
Cotton had been registered with the IHSA since April 7, 2015. He had run afoul of sex offender registry laws since he first obtained an IHSA officiating patch. 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. Johnson said there was no evidence that Cotton made any contact with children while he was officiating Smithton events.
His sex offender status didn’t register with anyone until the IHSA was notified prior to blocking his license.
“We received some information about (Cotton) and blocked him from the system,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, the grade school didn’t have access to our officials database.”
The fact that Smithton didn’t have access to the IHSA officials database is a problem, Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes said. The Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association, which Smithton belongs to, requires its members to use IHSA-certified officials for all of its contests.
Because Smithton is a district for grades K-8, it does not have access to the IHSA officials database. A Smithton employee earlier this week went through the process of becoming an IHSA official so that the school could access the database, which is housed in a password-protected portion of the IHSA’s website.
“We’re a high school association,” Anderson said. “We do this for our high school members. We don’t set the rules for grade schools. We understand that they hire IHSA-licensed officials. With that in mind, we’re going to work with (the SIJHAA) and grade schools to see if there is a way for them to have access.”
Until the IHSA requires background checks, Homes said the school district will check all of its game officials’ names against the state’s sex offender registry before hiring them.