Report: Bluffton High assistant coach fought player

rlurye@islandpacket.comFebruary 7, 2014 

A Bluffton High School assistant basketball coach who left the team earlier this week fought with one of her players Monday, prompting a Beaufort County School District investigation and changes to the way volunteers are screened, according to police and school officials.

Alexandra L. Murphy, 21, had been working as an unpaid volunteer with the girls varsity team for less than a month when she and a Bobcat player met at the student's home to fight Monday afternoon, the officials said.

After exchanging words at practice earlier that day, several players met in an open field behind the student's home and she and the coach "squared off," a Bluffton Police Department report said. Shortly after they began fighting, the other players separated them, the student told police.

Attempts Friday to contact Murphy for comment were unsuccessful.

Murphy is no longer with the school district, spokesman Jim Foster said -- he would not say if she quit or was fired -- but the approval of her application Jan. 10 raised questions about the school district's process for vetting volunteers.

The assistant coach had been charged by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office on Sept. 13 with felony breach of trust in an amount of $10,000 or more. Those charges are still pending, according to court records.

Foster told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Thursday that Murphy was screened by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division before she was allowed to coach. On Friday, he said he was mistaken and that the district was not aware of Murphy's earlier arrest.

In 2006, the district adopted a policy of conducting criminal background checks on all potential school volunteers. Until this week, the district's human resources department used a background-check tool in its application management system, called WinOcular, Foster said.

If that in-house system turned up an infraction, the school district would then request more information from SLED, at a cost of $25 per background check, Foster said. Murphy's approval suggests the WinOcular system's background-check feature was not working.

"We have definitely uncovered a problem, and we're going to fix it," Foster said.

Schools are now taking stock of their volunteers, who will undergo SLED checks in the next few weeks. All future applicants will undergo the screenings, as well, Foster said. It was not immediately clear how much money the new measure could cost the district, he said.

"We're going to make sure our background checks for volunteers are just as stringent as the ones we use for employees, because obviously, ensuring the safety of kids is job No. 1 for us," Foster said.

If background checks turn up charges, a decision about whether a volunteer will be allowed to serve is handled on a case-by-case basis by the human resources department, according to Foster. He said he was not sure if Murphy's felony charge would have disqualified her from coaching.

The 21-year-old is accused of fraud that cost her employer at the time, Dick's Sporting Goods, about $12,100, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. Murphy rang up customers for less than the amounts they purchased, performed false returns on items and allowed customers to leave the store with merchandise they had not paid for, McIntosh said.

Murphy began volunteering as an assistant coach Jan. 10, according to Foster. Police began investigating Monday's fight after Bluffton girls basketball coach Lonnie Roberts learned of the incident and suspended all players who were involved, the report said.

That action led to an animated discussion among the parents, which a school resource officer noticed after Tuesday evening's girls basketball game at Bluffton High School, according to police Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner.

The officer determined the coach and student had agreed to fight and no charges would be filed, the report said.

It's not clear when or if the players will serve the suspensions given by Roberts. Foster said he could not comment on disciplinary actions taken against students. Reached Friday, Roberts declined to comment. Attempts Friday to reach Bluffton athletics director Dave Adams were unsuccessful.

The Lady Bobcats played at Summerville on Friday.

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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