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A Roanoke Valley school system and a New River Valley club are evaluating guidelines after a former coach’s arrest.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Volunteer coaches for local school systems and club team coaches work closely with thousands of student athletes each year.
Hiring a coach usually begins with a background check. But after that, guidelines regulating private communications and one-on-one interactions, which have potential to lead to questionable or inappropriate coach-player relationships, vary.
At least one Roanoke Valley school system and one New River Valley club team have plans to review such safeguards after a former high school volleyball coach was arrested on child pornography charges last month.
Barger coached volleyball as a volunteer at Salem High School from 2006 to 2011 and has been accused by a former Salem player of inappropriately texting her while he was her coach.
He also was employed as a volleyball coach in Montgomery County during the 2012 season and served as an assistant director of travel volleyball for NRV Juniors before being fired in March.
The case raises the question of how much individual contact and communication with students is acceptable.
Salem City Schools officials plan to take up a policy pertaining to texting next month. The Blacksburg Striders running team also intends to make a change to coaching provisions by adding a contract that coaches must sign.
Guidelines for texting are in place in Roanoke County, and several club groups limit texting. But other clubs and school systems leave texting between coaches and student athletes unregulated.
"We don't think there should be one-on-one secret communication," Salem Superintendent Alan Seibert said. "We want transparency. We want to establish a level of transparency with texting."
He said the school system is looking at its policies with plans to establish guidelines for text message communication after an administrative review in the wake of the accusations against Barger. Seibert said he expects officials will discuss new language stipulating that texts be sent to a group and not individually to students.
The administrative review, conducted by Curtis Hicks , Salem's director of secondary education, lasted about two weeks and Seibert said it is largely a personnel matter.
"The only piece not related to personnel is the recommendation to come out of the review," he said, adding the recommendation was to look at texting and improve coaching training. "We resolve to learn from any significant event, positive or negative."
Currently, Salem volunteer coaches also undergo a background check and Virginia High School League training, and they must adhere to the same code of conduct set forth for staff members.
Local school systems report that the supervision of volunteers primarily falls to administrators, the principal in many cases, and sometimes coaches or athletic directors.
Some school systems also report that volunteers, including volunteer coaches, are expected to abide by the same conduct rules as staff. But the standards differ by school system.
Roanoke County, though, does have a specific code of conduct for extracurricular activities that must be signed by all coaches, athletic directors and other administrators. It has specific guidelines for interactions with students, including texting.
"All coaches are expected to sign and abide by it," Deputy Superintendent Allen Journell said.
The code of conduct specifically notes that those participating with students in extracurricular activities should "take active measures to avoid any situation where ethical or moral question regarding their relationship with student-athletes could be raised."
It states that meetings outside normal practice or competitions should be limited and one-on-one contact should be avoided. The code also states "individual cellphone and text contacts should be avoided."
According to a spokesman for Roanoke County Public Schools, the district has 55 volunteer coaches. Unlike other school system volunteers, many of whom are parents and must be supervised at all times, volunteer coaches go through a background screening process because they work directly with students. Volunteers are permitted in schools at the discretion of the principal.
Journell, who would lead any changes to such policies pertaining to volunteers and communication with students, said currently there are no specific plans to revise any of those policies.
Roanoke County Schools Superintendent Lorraine Lange said that any time there's an incident, it does cause officials to look at what they are doing to see if it needs to be changed. Lange also said most volunteers in the system are parents and that most coaches are school system staffers.
"Most of our coaches are people who are on our payroll," she said. "We try to have people teaching for us or working for us."
In Roanoke City Public Schools, system spokesman Justin McLeod said a majority of its coaches are also paid employees.
The system has a volunteer partnership policy manual and volunteer management system manual. The latter specifically states: "all volunteers need to be supervised when working with children. Volunteers are NOT allowed to take children to the bathrooms."
The system also requires that volunteers complete an application and receive a background check.
And in Montgomery County, where Barger, the coach accused of creating and possessing child pornography, was employed briefly, the school system also has practice of not leaving volunteers alone with students.
School system spokeswoman Brenda Drake said in an email that schools may request volunteer coaches complete a background check. Drake said Barger did receive a background check.
Drake also said that athletic directors provide coaches with training on appropriate and inappropriate contact with players.
"It is our practice that anyone who is volunteering with athletic activities is not left alone with the athletes; a paid coach must be present," she said in an email.
Like other school systems, volunteers in Montgomery are expected to adhere to the same conduct standards as staff, which are set forth in a policy, Drake said.
The local travel volleyball club, NRV Juniors, where Barger previously worked, has a handbook outlining staff conduct guidelines. It includes a provision stating coaches and personnel "shall understand the unique power of a coach-athlete relationship" and "shall avoid any relationships which could compromise the integrity of the learning and participation process."
It does not specifically address text messaging between coaches and players, but requires a background check for volunteers. It also requires that they sign the USA Volleyball Code of Conduct.
Other clubs, including the Roanoke Star Soccer Club, prohibit texting, instead relying on an Internet-based mass message system to communicate with players' families in the case of scheduling changes.
The YMCA of Roanoke Valley regulates texting, as does Blacksburg Striders, the group that plans on making changes to its policy this season.
YMCA spokeswoman Kim Bratic said the YMCA's swim teams follow the rules of USA Swimming, which governs swim clubs across the country. Those regulations include a provision stating that coaches should not have any communication with athletes referring to the adult's personal life or social activities. Another provision says text messaging should be used only to communicate information directly related to team activities.
Blacksburg Striders coach James DeMarco said one of the group's stipulations is that all communications should be related to practice or other team activities, and parents shouldn't find more than one text message conversation per day if they are looking at their child's phone.
He said technology has offered greater connection to the players, allowing many players keep in touch with coaches, but it has also added a potential threat.
"It's great we've got so many ways to communicate, but if you've got someone with the wrong intentions, it's a disaster," DeMarco said. "It's really hard to monitor."
He said nearly all of the team's coaches are either employees of his running store or former runners for the team, and they have traditionally gone over guidelines in a meeting at the beginning of each season.
DeMarco, who also coaches for Blacksburg High School, requires that adults should not be alone with a runner.
When a runner needed supervision in the old Blacksburg High School weight room while rehabilitating an injury, DeMarco instructed the coach to open the door and sit next to the opening.
"If you get worried about anything, walk outside because there's a security camera right outside," he told the coach. "You have to think that way."
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