From taking classes and requiring background checks to strategies for keeping strangers out, area youth sports groups are trying to avoid another Penn State.

Around 12 years ago, when Al and Steve Klunick were planning the design for The Gym, their basketball facility that caters to youth recreational leagues, they decided against having shower rooms for the players.

The decision was based both on economics — it was cheaper not to install them — and the simple fact that they probably wouldn’t be used.

“Things have changed since I was growing up. Kids had to take a shower after every game and every practice. Kids don’t do that anymore. They get dressed and go,” Al Klunick said.

The Klunick brothers don’t regret their decision. In light of the recent situation at Penn State University, where a former assistant football coach is accused of molesting young boys while showering after workouts, not having a shower room eliminates a potentially dangerous situation.

When the story at Penn State broke, along with similar accusations against a former assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, it shook the world of intercollegiate athletics. But the tragedy hit home at youth levels as well, and parents are being more careful about where their children go and who they are with when playing sports.

Al Klunick, 57, is the former head basketball coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, Ill. He has been involved in coaching since he was 17. His brother, Steve, is five years younger and also started coaching right after high school. Together, they have almost 75 years experience in teaching basketball to children and young adults.

They understand that keeping kids safe is their first priority

At The Gym, the facility is designed to minimize opportunities for abuse. The outside doors are positioned in such a way that everyone entering and exiting passes by the front counter where an employee is always on duty. The bathrooms have wide openings rather than doors and the basketball courts have large observation windows. Last year, the Klunicks had 14 security cameras installed throughout the facility.

“We don’t have anywhere where someone could go and be alone with a child,” Steve Klunick said.

They also have a policy that prohibits closed practices. Parents are encouraged to attend games and training sessions. Children must have someone on the premises acting as their guardian. A few years after opening, The Gym started charging guests for admission to discourage loitering.

“The nominal fee we charge changes who comes into your building and why they come into your building,” Steve Klunick said.

If employees notice someone hanging around who doesn’t appear to be with one of the players, they will approach the person.

“One time I noticed a guy who had been here for two or three hours. So I went up to him and introduced myself and asked him why he came out. He didn’t have a good explanation, so we asked him to leave,” Steve Klunick said.

Background checks

Shelley Vaughan, assistant director at the Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault in Springfield, Ill., recommends that youth sports leagues and organizations perform background checks on coaches and other volunteers. This should include research using sex offender registry lists, plus consultation with personal references.

The Springfield Youth Hockey Association is affiliated with USA Hockey, a national organization that requires that all coaches and referees have a current background check on file.

“This background check not only applies to coaches and refs, but any team official who may have one-on-one contact with a player. They have been a requirement for about 15 years,” said Steven Gobelman, SYHA president.

At The Gym, coaches who bring in a team made up of their child’s friends and classmates are not subjected to initial scrutiny. It is assumed that the parents are comfortable with that coach or they wouldn’t have signed them up.

However, if a person volunteers to coach and asks to be placed with a team, the Klunicks will do a background check using online court records and then ask the person to come in for a consultation.

“We’ll bring them in and talk. Find out who they are, who they know. It’s just kind of an interview process. Until we know who they are, they won’t be coaching here,” Al Klunick said.

Protection

As coaches and officials come under increased suspicion, the good people who volunteer their time as coaches also need to protect themselves against false accusations.

“It is important to abide by the two-adult rule. A two-adult rule protects the player and the coach — if he or she is never alone with a child then inappropriate behavior cannot be alleged,” Vaughan said.

She also pointed out that Illinois state law mandates that people who work in certain professions, including recreational programs or facility personnel, report to authorities if they suspect neglect or abuse. If coaches believe that one of their players is being victimized, they should call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service’s Child Abuse Hotline.

Vaughn said training is available to help people identify signs of sexual abuse. At local Catholic schools, coaches and other adults who work with students are trained to identify signs of abuse by attending a mandatory Protecting God’s Children workshop.

“The most beneficial part is that it really enforces awareness. Any parent or coach (is) required to take the class so they’ll know what the warning signs are. They go into detail in terms of what’s appropriate in terms of touching and being alone. Just being alone with a child is cause for concern,” said Doug Morgan, athletic director at St. Agnes School in Springfield.