The story that has emerged following the arrest of two Tampa Bay area youth athletic coaches on charges of producing child pornography should be a wakeup call for all organizations that recruit volunteers to work with children. No matter the time, cost or hassles involved, thorough background checks that screen for all crimes, not just sexual offenses, are critical. The days of trusting volunteers for youth sports and other activities based on a smile and their willingness to help are over.
David Rojas, 44, of Clearwater and John Derrick Martin, 43, of Wesley Chapel were arrested Monday after an investigation by the Florida attorney general's cybercrime unit. According to authorities, the men drugged two teenage girls and encouraged them to perform sex acts in a motel room while videotaping them. The men were charged with promotion of child pornography, lewd or lascivious conduct and lewd or lascivious battery.
Both men had regular access to lots of children in area schools and sports programs. Rojas coached the Dunedin Jr. Falcons peewee football team, was vice president of the SunCoast Youth Football Conference, and worked as a high school football referee. Martin was a volunteer coach at King High School in Tampa and Armwood High in Seffner. Also, Martin owned a Tampa-based multimedia company that worked in bay area schools, and he employed Rojas.
Rojas was permitted in schools and outside athletic programs despite a criminal record dating to 1988 that included convictions for aggravated assault, battery, dealing in stolen property and carrying a concealed gun — all felonies.
Those convictions should have set off alarm bells for anyone screening volunteers, but SunCoast Youth Football board members weren't looking for those kinds of crimes. They screened only for sexual offenders or sexual predators. A policy on background checks that overlooks offenses such as murder, kidnapping, child abuse or weapons charges while digging for a lewd and lascivious conviction leaves too much to chance.
Martin had no criminal record in Florida, which explains why he was given entry to schools for coaching and his multimedia job. But what about Rojas? The Jessica Lunsford Act, passed by the Legislature in 2005, requires full background checks on any vendor under contract with school systems. A check on Rojas should have unearthed his criminal history and raised questions about whether it was safe for him to be around children.
The alarming number of sex crimes committed against children may have led schools and youth groups to focus only on sexual offenses. But they also should look for red flags such as a string of felony convictions, which can indicate a pattern of lawless behavior. Doing such thorough background checks on all vendors and volunteers may be burdensome for school districts and youth program volunteers. It also is possible that some adults will shy away from volunteering because of old charges or convictions that they do not want to share even if they would not mean disqualification. But when it comes to giving adults access to children, it's impossible to be too careful.