Volunteers Meet With Background Checks By Schools

By Linda Jacobson — February 26, 2003 8 min read
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Some parents in Las Cruces, N.M., felt insulted when they were told they had to be fingerprinted before volunteering in their children’s schools. Others complained that it was ridiculous to require a volunteer to pay the $31 fee to get the fingerprint check. Still others stopped volunteering in reaction to the new district policy.

“For the first couple of months last fall, I felt more like a detective than a principal,” said Karen Woods, the principal at Hillrise Elementary School in Las Cruces. “But I think it’s beginning to calm a bit.”

In this age of heightened concern for security, a growing number of schools and districts— such as the 22,000-student Las Cruces system—are requiring parents and others who want to volunteer in classrooms to submit to criminal-background checks or be fingerprinted.

Such procedures “send an immediate notice to would-be volunteers with a background of misconduct that they are not wanted, and that if they do slip into the school, they will be watched,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center. The nonprofit organization in Westlake Village, Calif., provides information and resources on school safety and security issues.

While instituting such precautions can initially offend well-meaning parents who want to spend time helping students and teachers, many school administrators say the practice is well worth any awkwardness it may cause, and is eventually welcomed by parents.

“We want them involved, but we want to make sure we have the right people,” said Yvonne Morse, the principal of the 340-student Davis Elementary School in Washington, which has been requiring background checks on volunteers for several years.

At least six states—Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Utah—require districts to conduct background checks or fingerprinting of volunteers, in many cases following the same procedures that they use for potential district employees, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Regardless of if their states have such a law, some districts have moved forward on their own. One is the 1,700-student Alsip, Ill., school district, where the policy was approved about five years ago when the local chief of police was the president of the school board.

“Our parents have been very supportive of it,” said Jerry W. Vrshek, the principal of Hazelgreen Elementary School in Alsip, just south of Chicago. “They see it as further protection, just like the buzzing system on the front door.”

Parents, in general, say that being fingerprinted or completing the forms can be an inconvenience, but that “it’s worth the trip to be able to volunteer and go on field trips,” said Carol Turcotte, the president of the parent-teacher-student association at the 700-student Brookside School, a K-8 public school in Stockton, Calif., that has had a background check policy in place for a few years.

For background checks, schools generally give parents a volunteer application to complete, which is then turned over to a state law-enforcement agency or the FBI. To be fingerprinted, parents sometimes have to go to their local police stations, which school officials and parents say can discourage would-be volunteers.

But in Las Cruces and other districts, school leaders are trying to make the process more parent-friendly by setting up a system that allows parents to get the fingerprint checks at schools. And some districts cover the cost of the fingerprint fee.

Parent-involvement experts say the way school staff members convey the need for background checks can make a big difference in how parents respond.

“It doesn’t have to be done in a way that alienates people,” said Joyce Epstein, an education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who works with schools nationally on how to improve relationships with parents.

For the first time this school year, the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in Indialantic, Fla., has a person on staff who is trained to do fingerprinting. Previously, parents picked up the fingerprint cards at the school and then were told to go to the state police department to complete the process.

Now, volunteers don’t have to go out of their way to get it done, said Lois D. Scrivener, the principal of the 560-student school, which is just east of Orlando.

Ms. Scrivener pointed out that parents initially took exception to the practice when the Diocese of Orlando began requiring it three years ago.

“But then I explained to them that when a person is in your child’s classroom, your child sees that person as safe,” she said. “I need to make sure that person is safe.”

Prior Offenses

Anne Robertson, the coordinator of the National Parent Information Network—part of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign—said it’s wise to hold orientation and training sessions for volunteers. The need for fingerprinting or background checks, she said, can be discussed in those meetings so parents are not caught unaware.

“You have to communicate your reasons to parents so that you’re building a trusting relationship,” Ms. Robertson said.

Just as schools differ on how they implement such policies, they also vary on how they handle a situation in which a background check turns up a prior offense.

Ms. Morse in the District of Columbia said she’s not willing to allow anyone without a clean record to work in her school. On the other hand, Ms. Scrivener tries to restrict parents only in the areas where they have had previous problems.

For example, Ms. Scrivener said, if someone had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, he or she would not be allowed to drive students on field trips or to sporting events, but would still be allowed to work in classrooms.

“But if the charge was selling drugs or possession of drugs, do you really want to take a chance on that?” she said.

Some principals said they understand that just because prospective volunteers got into trouble as young adults doesn’t mean they engage in such behavior now that they are parents. But if principals are not comfortable allowing a volunteer to work with children—or if a parent objects to having the background check completed—they try to steer that person toward other activities that support the school, such as working in the copying room.

“If you’re in a community with a high degree of offenses, you have to find other ways for people to be involved,” Ms. Robertson said.

She added that it is good policy always to have volunteers work in pairs, or always to have a volunteer with a staff member.

Ms. Morse added that sometimes simply asking parents to fill out the forms serves as a screening process. Adults who think something in their backgrounds will be uncovered often simply don’t pursue volunteering.

‘Gut Instinct’

Even though they acknowledge the need to protect children from potentially dangerous adults, some educators say they don’t believe background checks are the direction that schools should take.

Susan McRae, the principal of the 770-student Elsie Collier Elementary School in Mobile, Ala., said finding volunteers is hard enough without requiring them to pay $50 or more to be fingerprinted. She suggested that potential volunteers can still be “screened” through less official measures.

“Sometimes, gut instinct is a greater screener than anything that might be formalized as a policy,” Ms. McRae said. “We need to be careful of the volunteer, careful for the children, but we cannot move to a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.”

The National PTA does not have an official position on fingerprinting and background checks of parent volunteers, said Jennifer Gaster Sopko, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based organization. But she said members have raised concerns over the potential cost of such policies, especially if the expenses are the responsibility of the volunteers themselves.

Ms. Epstein of Johns Hopkins said a less-is-better policy is often appropriate for smaller schools in more close-knit communities.

“You don’t want to overcorrect,” she said. “Our first rule is know your families.”

Experts also say that even when background checks are used, educators should not relax in the belief that the children are completely safe.

“The real abusers don’t have a record,” Ms. Robertson said, adding that it’s not uncommon for offenders to slip from one community to another without ever being caught.

That’s why it is smart for schools not to allow volunteers to work alone with students, she said.

Not Just Parents

While the policies primarily affect parents who want to volunteer in their children’s schools, districts are finding that the task does not end there.

In Las Cruces, student teachers from New Mexico State University, mentors from the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, and others who have contact with students also have to go through the process, said Janaan Diemer, the district’s assistant director of human resources.

For Beth LeBlanc, a parent at Hillrise Elementary who hires community members to work in the school’s after-school program, the fingerprinting policy has complicated the job of recruiting people. Because the employees only receive a small stipend for working in the program, instead of a salary, there is less incentive to go through the fingerprinting procedure, Ms. LeBlanc said.

She said she would call applicants repeatedly, only to find out that they had decided not to go through with the process. Last fall, she had to replace most of the people she had lined up for the positions.

“It took hours and hours of my time to follow up,” Ms. LeBlanc said.

At this point, she added, the new policy is giving parents an illusion of safety because the background check is not completed before the eight-week program begins.

“How useful is it?” she asked.

One factor that helps, Las Cruces administrators said, is that volunteers representing other groups often can be fingerprinted through their organizations.

Because the Las Cruces district is one of the first in the state to fingerprint all volunteers, it’s likely that some of what administrators there are learning will be useful to other districts.

“Most people, after they’ve lodged their complaints, go ahead and do it,” Ms. Diemer said. “We feel good about it, but boy, we’ve taken some heat for it.”

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