‘I quit breathing’: Bill raises penalties for attacks on referees, school staff

Jan 26, 2024, 1:12 AM | Updated: 7:05 am

sports referees atttacks...

Basketball refs in mask before the start of the game. (Photo: Ben Hasty via Getty Images)

(Photo: Ben Hasty via Getty Images)

In response to growing concerns over the attacking and intimidating sports referees, several House Republicans are backing a bill to increase penalties for doing so a felony.

House Bill 2079 would elevate the penalty for anyone who interferes “by force or violence” from a gross misdemeanor to a class C felony. The penalties would be raised from a $500 fine and a maximum of six months in jail, or both, to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, or both. (A PDF of the original bill can be seen here.)

It’s not just referees but educators, students, and school staff involved in school-related activities where a person intimidates or interferes by force or violence.

“There is no place in sports programs or schools for intimidation, verbal or physical assault or threatening our sports officials,” Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, testified during a public hearing before the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee Thursday.

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For public school students found guilty of interference by force or violence, the bill authorizes emergency removal. If such interference takes place during extracurricular athletic activities, the student may face exclusion from participating in or attending such activities for up to 12 months.

‘I quit breathing’: Ex-ref speaks out after 1996 assault

Former wrestling referee Bob West has been asking for stricter penalties for 25 years ever since he was headbutted by a student wrestler during a match in Colville in 1996.

“I quit breathing,” West said. “I was unconscious for about five minutes and have undergone four neck surgeries as a result of that assault.”

The student ended up serving one day of detention, a month in jail, and one year of probation, according to West.

Aside from criminal penalties, non-students convicted of interference by force or violence may be excluded from entering the school where the offense occurred or from attending the extracurricular athletic activities associated with the offense for a period of up to 12 months.

“In my opinion, the state is a little late in acting on this in a more serious way over the last decade, especially with the amount of violence that has been perpetrated against officials of all ages,” Wade Harris, a referee for wrestling and soccer from Vancouver, said.

He said the lack of referees for school sports and private leagues is due in part to threats made against them by students and parents.

He said the average age of a school referee across the country is 55 years old, but many student sports are officiated by teenagers who are 14 to 15 years old and are easily intimidated by threatening parents and players.

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Opposition to the bill

David Trieweiler, representing the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, opposed the bill, claiming there are already laws on the books that can handle violence against a referee or school staff.

“It’s already a felony if you injure someone seriously; it’s assault in the second degree,” he told lawmakers. He said what happened to Bob West was a felony.

“We don’t need to pass another law, which we continue to do every session when we already have crimes on the books to address these situations,” Trieweiler said.

Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, suggested a signage campaign to let the public know of the consequences of referee violence and intimidation.

“We have signs all over the schools that say if you have a gun, this is the penalty. If we started advertising to the parents and those that participate like that, there would be a deterrent effect,” Griffey said.

Representative Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the committee chairperson, said the committee may “fiddle” with the bill and bring it back for a possible vote next week.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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‘I quit breathing’: Bill raises penalties for attacks on referees, school staff