SALT LAKE CITY — It's unlikely a Utah high school coach who is a licensed school teacher can readily move to another assignment if a hearing process substantiates they had inappropriate contact with a student.
But what about coaches — paid and volunteer — who fall outside that system?
The State School Board is wrestling with that question as it considers a proposed administrative rule that would in some way track the employment of coaches and volunteers who work with students in interscholastic activities but are not licensed educators.
Some members of the Utah State Board of Education say the rule change would enhance student safety, but others argue that a registry or database that would be made available to schools statewide could unfairly impugn coaches' reputations unless there is a hearing process for them to challenge allegations of wrongdoing.
After debating the rule in a recent meeting, the State School Board will likely take up the matter again when it meets on July 14.
State School Board member Spencer Stokes said an effective policy is needed to keep "the bad actors" from serving as coaches.
"This is where the predator problem occurs. It's not with our licensed educators because we have a system for them. It's all the other people who come and are involved. As the father of three daughters who participated in high school athletics, I've seen some of this," he said.
Board member Linda Hansen said one of her concerns is inappropriate conduct can go unchecked for a long time because "parents are afraid to report things because they're afraid their kids aren't going to get to play."
Although the Utah High School Activities Association's certification process requires coaches to undergo background checks and training, it has not tracked the employment of coaches.
Coaches who are not certified school teachers are at-will employees who can be dismissed from schools for any reason and without warning.
Rob Cuff, executive director of the UHSAA, said hiring and dismissals occur at the school level and often without the knowledge of the association.
Kristen Betts, president of the Nebo Board of Education and chairwoman of the activities association's board of trustees, said the school district's legal counsel advises board members not to disclose the reasons at-will employees are terminated because of potential liability issues.
Board member Alisa Ellis said the challenge comes in finding a means to protect student-athletes and coming up with a system "that wasn't putting a scarlet 'A' on someone as they went back through the system."
Absent some form of due process, "that didn't seem like the American way either," Ellis said.
Board member Carol Lear, a former school law and legislation director for the Utah State Board of Education, said if a component of "bad-acting coaches" is added to a database accessible to local education agencies statewide, "they have to add a UPPAC-like system that gives coaches the opportunity to respond to those allegations."
Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, conducts administrative hearings and makes recommendations to the State School Board regarding educator licensure and educator misconduct. Possible outcomes can include dismissing an allegation the hearing process determines is not substantiated, revoking teacher licenses, suspending them, or issuing letters of reprimand, warning or admonishment.
Stokes said one option to protect student would be to require coaches to sign an agreement they will go through the UPPAC hearing process if someone levels an allegation against them.
Lear cautioned against adding nonlicensed employees and others to the commission's workload.
"It’s not a simple process. I don’t think it can bear the weight of another system," she said.
One option would be to make a request to the Utah Legislature to fund a hearing process that would be handled by the Utah High School Activities Association, Lear said.
Assistant Utah Attorney General David Thomas said he agrees there would need to be some type of hearing process, but since the activities association is a nonprofit organization, it does not require the same type of administrative hearing as a governmental entity.
"It does not have to be as deliberative as that," Thomas said, referring to the UPPAC process.
"We are by bootstrapping in the association. We are requiring a state level of certification by bootstrapping, not by fiat, not by making the association a public agency. But by bootstrapping, we're creating a thing that arguably some kind of due process beyond a good reason to color a person's reputation," she said.
Assistant Utah Attorney General David Thomas agreed some sort of hearing process would be needed before posting employment information on UHSAA database available to school districts and charter schools but it "does not have to be as deliberative as that," referring to UPPAC because the Utah High School Activities Association is a nonprofit organization.
To obtain certification from UHSAA, coaches must undergo background checks and complete training on CPR, first aid, concussion protocols and complete the National Federation of State High School Associations' Fundamentals of Coaching course.
Following the Utah Legislature's general session, the State School Board passed an administrative rule that creates new certification requirements: child sexual abuse prevention training and bullying, cyberbullying, hazing, harassment and retaliation training.
Tracking employment of coaches and volunteers who are not certified teachers would be another component.
Although the activities association certifies coaches, it is the responsibility of school districts or charter schools to check potential hires against the certification registry.
Stokes said he would like the board to come up with a policy and process that balances the competing interests so parents "can know for a certainty when you're sending your child to participate in school athletics that there's not somebody who has been fired or quit from another district is now doing something else because they were a great wrestling coach or great girls tennis coach somebody finds out about it and wants to pick them up as a volunteer."