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A Time for Choosing
[10/01/2012] [Randall]

The recent situation in the Kingdom of the Crystal Groves should be clarifying. This ought to be the moment where Amtgard realizes that we cannot turn a blind eye to dangerous and illegal shenanigans at our events and at our parks. It should also make us realize that we need to take appropriate action to protect our members and our game. The Crystal Groves investigation is ongoing, and I cannot and will not speculate on it or discuss the specifics of the situation. If you want to talk about it, I suggest you visit the e-Samurai thread or Facebook. Nor does this post represent the opinions of Amtgard, Inc. or the Executive Committee of the Circle of Monarchs. Rather, I am writing as an Amtgarder concerned with the way Amtgard, going forward, can protect its members and itself. With that in mind, we can use this specific situation as a launching point to discuss the more general issue of how to do that.

The example of what we do not want to happen comes to us from the Society for Creative Anachronisms. A member of their organization was convicted of molesting kids he met through the SCA. The organization terminated his membership, which was the right thing to do. As if the molestation wasn’t bad enough, the SCA was then sued for $7 million by members of the victims’ families. Although the SCA denies it was responsible for what happened, it settled the lawsuit for $1.2 million, citing unsustainable legal fees as the reason. On the plus side, the SCA had insurance to cover that cost. On the minus side, its insurers refused to do that—so the SCA had to sue them to get that money. Only a third of it was ponied up by the insurers, leaving the organization—and every kingdom in it—on the hook for $800,000. Each kingdom was asked to cough up its share of the $800,000. Even if we’d be looking at a lawsuit a fraction of that, there’s no way Amtgard can do that. So what are we doing to protect ourselves?

The biggest plus in our book is that Amtgard, Inc. is aggressively getting ahead of any sex offense that comes up. Their effort in this area has been tireless and uncompromising. As an organization, we want it to be clear that Amtgard does not tolerate this kind of behavior, nor does it tolerate convicted sex offenders as officers—and that’s what the Board of Directors is doing. This shows due diligence on their part, and minimizes the damage to the overall organization if an individual chapter screws up. It also gets sex offenders out of positions of authority, which is hopefully a step towards protecting minors.

That’s a start, but we could do more. I’d like to examine two rules the SCA implemented after their scandal. The first is their “two-deep” policy, which requires two unrelated adults to be present for any SCA function involving kids. The second is a requirement that all officials involved in youth activities get background-checked. These are both possibly problematic polices for Amtgard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t implement something similar.

There are also some cultural shifts that would make the club better. I’ll talk about those in more detail at the end.

First, the two-deep rule. It’s a potential problem for our club, which has page-noble relationships, people taking kids to events, and so on. We’d have to ask many questions to make this policy work. Does going to the event count as part of the event? What if I’m 18 and my 17-year-old buddy wants to go to town? Would it only apply to official activities? Would it only apply to youth-specific activities? Are all our activities youth activities because we’re a 14-and-over club? At a minimum, it should apply to official Amtgard functions, which would include A&S meetings, fighter practices, regular weekends, events, feasts, and so on. It would also seem to apply to all adults, not just officers, if we implemented it the way the SCA sets it up. Overall, while it might be worth examining as a policy if we can figure out all the kinks, it may be difficult to implement in Amtgard. Our solution may have to be a different one.

The background checks are also a problem, but perhaps less than at first glance. In the SCA, they background check anyone who wants to run youth activities. Since the SCA is an 18+ organization, there is a divide between youth activities and adult activities. That ain’t the case in Amtgard, where we’re 14+. It could easily be argued that every activity in Amtgard is a youth activity. Also, background checks run $50-$150. If we did one for every officer, every board member, and every autocrat, the cost per year averages $1500. That’s just back-of-the-napkin math, but it shows that most parks in Amtgard can’t afford this. What we can afford is to run names through the National Sex Offender Public Website. It’s not complete, but it’s not nothing either. We could also get information from state-by-state case lookups, which track more than just sex offenses, although I am not sure that’s valuable information for the issue at hand. States also only track their own information, and not data on what happened in other states. But, at a minimum, we can use the sex offender registry to prevent people with records from holding office.

As far as I can tell, the SCA does not run checks on all members—just officers and people who run youth events. Their two-deep rule covers other potential problems. Even though Amtgard might find the two-deep rule to be unimplementable, using the sex offender registry to background check officers is a good start. Personally, given their role within the game, I would add knights to that list as well, at least when knighted. To do otherwise means we’re welcoming the news running stories about our youth-oriented organization conferring our highest honor on convicted sex offenders. That’s not a news story I want to see.

The other options are to improve our waivers and clarify officer roles. We may conclude that our activities are not specifically youth activities—which is true, since they are mixed youth/adult activities, which means we’re not generally talking about situations where one grown-up takes a dozen kids into the woods. That might make the two-deep rule unnecessary for us. We could also reduce our background check obligation by specifying the roles of officers so it’s clear they aren’t overseeing youth-only activities. I am not sure that’s a great solution—I’d rather just run the checks with the registry—but it is an option. Another option is to ensure that our waivers make it clear that parents remain responsible for their children. The SCA does that with a “Sight/Sound Rule” stipulating that minors under 13 at events must be within sight and sound of their parent or guardian, and children under 5 must be present with their parents. We could define an event as anything that takes place outside of a public setting, and enforce the rule for events. That means camp-outs. It also might mean A&S at someone’s house. We’d be in the weeds regarding what individuals do in their free time, and the SCA situation is an illustration of how such a definition can be ruinous, but applying this to official Amtgard functions seems to be a start.

So: all officers and autocrats must come back clean when run through the sex offender registry, and guardians or parents have a sight/sound duty at all non-public Amtgard functions. That’s doable.

The hard part is the culture shift, but it may be what we need the most. There are several ideas we’re going to have to leave behind.

First, there is the idea that someone who has done their time should be welcomed back as a regular member of society—and therefore be allowed to play and be officers. I am torn on whether we should allow sex offenders to play, but I am convinced we shouldn’t let them be in positions of authority over minors. This means a convicted sex offender cannot hold office. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that we are under no obligation to allow the criminal justice system to dictate who can and cannot be officers. Amtgard rightly cherishes our tradition of welcoming misfits, but that doesn’t mean we have to include sex offenders under that umbrella. We can welcome nerds, social outcasts, unathletic nincompoops, and all manner of people who feel unwelcome in mundania without having to welcome sex offenders too. The SCA background checks their potential officers, and they don’t let sex offenders oversee kids. It’s reasonable for them to do it, and it’s reasonable for us to do it too.

There is secondly the idea that something that happens away from Amtgard should not concern us. I find it feeble to believe that Amtgard should not be worried about a child molester who has only been convicted of molesting kids away from Amtgard. We can again turn to the SCA’s example to find the counterargument. In that scenario, the individual took children to his parent’s house and molested them there. Even though the SCA banned the guy as soon as they found out, the organization was still sued for, among other things, “adopting a head-in-the-sand attitude” about the abuse. The accusation was that it should have known. Amtgard would be in bad shape if that happened to us. It would be trivial for even a bad lawyer to find examples of Amtgarders willfully looking the other way when laws are broken. Imagine if that were compounded by a case of us checking someone’s sex offense history, finding a crime, and concluding that we’re okay with letting them be an officer because their offenses didn’t happen at Amtgard. We’d be culpable, and we’d be done. We must utterly abandon the idea that our group should be intentionally disinterested with member crimes that happen away from Amtgard. If a crime happens away from Amtgard and it makes someone unfit to be a member or an officer, then the club can and should act.

Third, there is the idea that any investigative effort like this is a witch hunt. Well, it’s only a witch hunt if witches aren’t real. Yes, we should be concerned about the privacy of our members, names go on the waiver and the FBI registry is public information. This isn’t a privacy issue. Plus, there really are witches. The SCA lost a million bucks—and six kids—discovering that. We can stick our heads in the sand like they were accused of doing, or we can learn from their error.

Finally, we should end the culture of looking the other way. In the past, people have been stabbed, whole companies and households have done drugs at events and public parks, we’ve had underage drinking, we’ve had allegations of inappropriate sexual contact—and all of it must end.

This means not making up feeble excuses for keeping our heads in the sand regarding sex offenders mingling with our 14-and-over game.

This means no more tolerance of Amtgard’s drug culture.

This means no more underage drinking.

This means fixing it.

Amtgard has made strides in recent years in these areas: Autocrats have adopted zero tolerance policies and event waivers are more common. Yet we still have problems. Well, it’s time for everyone to be given a choice: Fix it, or go.

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