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Sex offender forces changes on checking backgrounds of game officials

SPRINGFIELD, IL (KPLR) - After a registered sex offender was calling ballgames in a Metro East school district, an area lawmaker wants to make sure that never happens again.

A St. Clair County judge sentenced 51-year-old Dennis Cotton to three years in prison this week for failing to register as a sex offender. Cotton was also found guilty of four misdemeanors for unlawful presence in a public park by a sex offender.

Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, told FOX2 Wednesday that Cotton likely fell through the cracks because the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) does not conduct background checks on game officials.

Beiser has introduced legislation to require fingerprint-based background checks for referees, and would require the IHSA to run their names against the state’s crime databases.

"Back in my days, 40 years ago, I was an official with IHSA,” Beiser said. “I realize at that time all we did is fill out some paperwork and I realize that that process really hasn't changed that much in over 40 years. It is a very loose process; people were being asked to be honest about the whole situation."

Cotton had been convicted in Arizona in 2003 for an offense involving a 15-year-old girl.

The IHSA cut ties with Cotton when they received a tip about him in September, but the organization was not required to tell the K-8 Smithton School District.

Although many groups sanctioning elementary and middle school sports are required to use ISHA-licensed referees, they do not have access to the IHSA’s databases.

Swansea Police arrested Cotton after they learned he was officiating for the Smithton district.

The IHSA used Beiser’s bill to kick start internal action to address the loophole.

Although the IHSA has expressed worry about the cost of background checks, it is now mandating that game official’s names be checked with the state police’s crime databases when they are first licensed. Those names are checked quarterly once officials begin working games.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson sent FOX2 News the following statement:

“As a result of the cooperation between Representative Daniel Beiser and the IHSA, we have expanded our relationship with the Illinois State Police to enable access to a more comprehensive criminal database in which to check our official’s database against, including those convicted of violent crimes and sex crimes. These systematic checks include checking the status of current officials, as well as all new officials who are in the licensing process. Additionally, we are sharing our information with the Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) and the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association (SIJHSAA) to better aid those organizations in the hiring of officials who are in good standing.  House Bill 256 that was originally introduced by Representative Beiser provided the impetus for the IHSA to implement a more stringent and timely check as well as expanding the opportunity to access our database of licensed officials to these other associations.  We appreciate the opportunity to work with Representative Beiser on these changes.”

Beiser’s bill was scheduled for a hearing in Springfield Wednesday, but he said he has been satisfied with the IHSA’s actions thus far and decided to table it.