In the Wake of the Sandusky Scandal, A Call for Youth Coaching Certifications

At the end of every weekday millions of kids dash out of school and into the care of adults, like Sandusky, who are meant to teach and mentor them. While they are all educating children, not all of these adults are vetted.
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The arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a former college football coach and community volunteer who worked with children, on forty counts of child molestation of young boys has shocked and frightened many parents. As well it should.

At the end of every weekday millions of kids dash out of school and into the care of adults, like Sandusky, who are meant to teach and mentor them in sports, academics, and music. Some of these adults generously donate their time (like Scout leaders, church volunteers, tutors, and Little League coaches), while others charge a fee for their services (like dance and music teachers or coaches of travel teams/elite sports).

While they are all educating children, not all of these adults are vetted. Regulation of afterschool coaches, mentors, and volunteers is so lax, and in some cases nonexistent, that many do not ever undergo a routine background check to make sure they have never been convicted of child molestation. That means that some of the "professionals" paid to teach children in afterschool activities may have previously been convicted, charged, or accused of child molestation. Earlier this year the gymnastics community was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal when it was discovered that coach Doug Boger, who had been banned by USA Gymnastics for abusing girls in California, was still coaching young girls in a gym in Colorado Springs. States are responsible for passing laws to require background checks, and not all states have such legislation. At a minimum, all fifty states should require mandatory, national, fingerprint-based background checks of all adults who interact with children (legally defined as those 18 and under).

But is that enough? No. In addition to making sure that the basics are covered -- like those background checks regarding child molestation, and CPR certification -- parents should make sure that coaches are experts in their area, with training in both the substantive subject matter (like piano, chess, soccer, etc.) and in instruction of children. State legislation that certifies youth activity coaches and organizations would make that process easier.

Currently anyone can open a dance studio or a music school and no one could stop them from charging fees for services. Essentially no formal certification procedures exist to make sure that the tap teacher, the oboe instructor, or the lacrosse coach who you write a check to each month is qualified to instruct your child in tap, the oboe, or lacrosse. Imagine if we ran schools this way.

Since 2005 I have studied the organization of children's competitive afterschool activities both as a graduate student at Princeton University and as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. When I was studying competitive youth soccer I interviewed one business owner who proudly told me that because he is from Latin America parents assume he is good at soccer. In fact, he is a terrible player. Instead of playing up soccer skills, he plays up his accent which he claimed parents responded to well.

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to kids' activities, these issues are often happily ignored; parents don't want to offend a coach and risk precious playing time or attention for their child by asking questions. But given the number of injuries currently observed in children's activities, from broken bones to concussions to serious knee injuries, like ACL tears, this needs to change for the safety of those children. Coaches need to be properly trained to train young bodies, and minds, in a safe way. As more and more kids participate in these activities in an increasingly competitive way, more serious injuries will result.

Many coaches and parents resist formal regulation of youth coaches on two grounds. The first is that we should not live in a nanny state that tells parents what they should or should not do with their kids. But this used to be said about daycare centers. After one too many accidents and one too many child molestation cases, this changed as the need to protect children and provide parents with safe options became more important.

Others resist certification procedures because that may drive up the costs. Again, this used to be said about childcare, and while the professionalization of childcare providers has resulted in higher fees, fewer children dying or being abused makes the trade-off seem worth it.

In the end every parent will make the decision they think best for his or her child. But that decision should be based on as much trustworthy information as possible. At present parents can ask other parents about experiences with a particular youth sports coach or organization. But if states required certifications for coaches, dance studios, gyms, and the like, parents would have a more reliable source of information and trust that their children are being safely instructed by other adults.

Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than programs where children can suffer catastrophic physical and emotional injury. If some good can come of the Sandusky scandal perhaps it can be treating our children as least as well as we treat our nails.