Six months after an altercation between a volunteer coach and player at Bluffton High School led to changes in the district's policy for background checks, area athletics directors are supporting the more stringent system and say it hasn't had a major effect on their programs. In February, Bluffton volunteer assistant girls basketball coach Alexandra L. Murphy, then 21, left the program after her involvement in an altercation with a player outside the student's home.
That, and the subsequent discovery that Murphy had been charged on Sept. 13 by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office for an alleged felony breach of trust, led the district to look into the program it used for background checks.
A more expansive program was implemented, incorporating national databases, and the district began to require all coaching hires -- even volunteers -- to undergo such a review.
Area high schools are not able to fill all coaching spots with district employees, so they occasionally turn to off-campus candidates.
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Battery Creek athletics director John Drafts said he expect to use two volunteer coaches for the 2014-15 school year. At Beaufort High School, athletics director Jerry Linn said the Eagles used six last year and expect the same number beginning this fall. Both Hilton Head Island High and Bluffton High schools enlist volunteers as assistant coaches.
Because the number of volunteers undergoing the more rigorous background checks isn't especially large, athletics directors say the change in policy has not had much of an impact logistically on the hiring process.
Bluffton High School athletics director Dave Adams said not much has changed in his role in hiring coaches, including volunteers.
Linn said Beaufort High typically pulls volunteers from the nearby fire department and has had a productive relationship with these employees for years. Enhanced background checks have not changed anything, other than adding an extra level of security and peace of mind, and the school has not had to part ways with any such personnel over the new policies. Drafts also said he has not had to drop any volunteers or off-campus hires from his programs. While there many not be an overwhelming number of volunteer coaches at area schools, Linn said they definitely fill a need.
"Sometimes we have problems filling assistant coaching positions," Linn said. "These teams get pretty big."
Drafts said he will continue to support the policy of extending background checks that district employees undergo to volunteer assistants.
"I think anything that you can do to check people's background more thoroughly, I'm all for it," Drafts said. "I haven't seen a huge effect of it so far."
Each athletics director contacted for this story said they were in favor of any change that enhanced the safety of student-athletes and discussed the due diligence that goes into the hiring process from their end.
The important thing, Hilton Head Island High athletics director Joe Monmonier said, is to make sure to do as much legwork as is possible before making a hire and submitting an applicant to district HR for approval. That includes calling references and contacts at other schools and performing Internet searches for any relevant information.
Both Adams and Monmonier said they prefer to hire coaches who also double as teachers or district employees, both for the logistical convenience and because it makes them more accessible to student-athletes. The challenge remains that only so many prospective coaches also want to teach. Even those coaches and volunteers that are based off-campus find plenty of support and success, Monmonier said, citing girls soccer coach Ernie Suozzi, who has led the program to four straight state championships, among others.
For his part, Adams said despite February's incident, he is proud of the staff of coaches -- both full-time and volunteer -- that lead Bobcats athletics, and feels they have the best interests of students in mind.
"I think we have a very, very quality staff," Adams said.
Monmonier said the end goal of any new policy is student safety.
"We just want to make sure that before a volunteer works or a coach is hired, we put them through the application process," Monmonier said. "We try to keep the student athletes as safe as possible."
According to Monmonier, there is always a chance an unsuitable candidate can slip through the cracks, but that the goal is to gather as much information as possible before such a candidate has the opportunity to get settled and meet with students. For Linn, this is exactly what makes the new system of checks a positive for all sides.
"I think that the new protocol of doing this is good," Linn said. "I think it's a great system. Do we react to situations? Yeah, we have to react. Things happen. How can we fix it so it doesn't happen again? We have to do that for our kids."