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Should parents have to pass a background check before volunteering in schools?
January 12, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Here's another interesting case involving schools, this one out of Rhode Island.
The Cranston School District in that state had barred a mother from volunteering at her daughter's school because she had a past history of drug addiction. Jessica Doyle was a heroin addict in her early 20s and had two felony drug-related convictions on her record. However, she has been clean since before her daughter's birth in 2003, obtained treatment, speaks on behalf of drug abuse prevention groups, obtained certification to work in the chemical addiction field and now works at a residential substance abuse treatment program that serves pregnant and postpartum women and their children.
Doyle had also been an active volunteer at her daughter's school and extracurricular activities before the school district adopted its new volunteer policy in 2009. The ACLU sued on Doyle's behalf and the school district agreed last month to a settlement. The revised policy doesn't automatically disqualify parents with drug convictions from volunteering, but takes into account how long ago the offense was, the parent's rehabilitative efforts and community involvement. Doyle is now again allowed to volunteer in her daughter's classroom, according to ACLU.org
I suspect that many other school districts across the country have similar policies. I have heard of some districts going so far as to require that parents be fingerprinted and have a thorough background check done before they can volunteer. I wonder how many parents with a past criminal record have been banned from volunteering at their kids' schools or even, under some circumstances, setting foot on school grounds. I suspect that the entire process discourages a lot of parents, including those who have no record, from getting involved in the school.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut and other high profile stories, we are probably going to hear about a lot of school districts taking even more stringent safety measures. Tightening up their policies on who can volunteer in a child's classroom is likely to be among them. But I think some of these efforts are likely going too far. You would never know it in this age of classroom lockdowns, surveillance cameras and school security guards, but despite the horrible news stories we all have seen, crime and child abuse rates have actually gone down in the past couple of decades. Children are far, far safer than they have ever been before.
Does it really make sense to bar a parent with a criminal record from volunteering in his or her child's class, particularly when there are likely several other adults at the same activity and it is likely taking place in a crowded public place? What was the Rhode Island school board afraid Doyle was going to do? Deal drugs to a classroom of third-graders under the watchful eye of their teacher and other parents volunteering at the same activity? Even parents who have more recent convictions for more serious offenses are hardly likely to do anything questionable at such an activity.
At one time educators emphasized the importance of parental involvement in a child's education and lamented that some parents do not come to parent-teacher conferences or help a child with his homework. A child who sees that his parents care about education is more likely to care about school and put more effort into his studies. Policies like the one passed by the Rhode Island school seem designed to discourage, not encourage, parents from getting involved and make it more likely that their kids will fall behind in the classroom. Children of parents who have had trouble in the past are probably even more at risk of doing poorly in school, so that should be the last thing school districts want to do.
I'm glad that the ACLU took Doyle's case and forced the Rhode Island school to back down. I hope other school districts across the country will also be more reasonable in their parent volunteer policies.
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