By Bill Tate
As the back to school season swings into full gear this fall, there are many opportunities for adults to volunteer and support school activities.
Volunteers lend valuable time and assistance to our school systems, and while the majority of school volunteers are law abiding role models for our nation’s children, unsavory adults sometimes come into the mix. Predators, or “wolves in volunteers’ clothing,” can be quite wily at finding ways to be near children. When the infamous bank robber, Willie Sutton, was asked why he stole from banks, he said, “Because that’s where the money is.”
Individuals who work closely with children, whether it is a teacher or a volunteer, a coach or cafeteria or maintenance worker, should be subject to background screening before their interaction begins. Most of us assume that every adult working closely with our children is carefully vetted by the schools with which they are associated.
The practice of background checks for school employees is standard issue for all employees with access to children. Background checks reduce organizational liability and help protect children. So why should this practice differ with school volunteers? Depending on the role of the volunteers and the level of supervision they will have, many believe school volunteers should be subject to the same screening criteria as any other school employee. While not universal, more and more school districts across the country are adopting policies mandating that volunteers who interact with students must go through a criminal background check first. School districts in Charlotte, Nashville, Seattle, and San Antonio, for example, actively screen all volunteers who will interact with students.
However, such policies are not in place in all school districts. Some schools are concerned that background checks on volunteers will reduce volunteer involvement. But every school needs to carefully consider who they allow to interact with their students – on school grounds and at school sponsored activities. Background checks on school volunteers may reveal that someone has a criminal history or is living under an alias. Most parents don’t want volunteers who have misdemeanor and felony convictions at their school.
It is important that parent volunteers don’t become offended when asked to go through a background check. A comprehensive screening policy should dictate that everyone interacting with the students be screened – even if they are a parent of a current student. Most parents will understand this need and will support the school district’s commitment to student safety.
Parents should inquire about the background screening policy at their child’s school. This will allow parents to better understand the school’s position on the issue and what will be required of them if they have the opportunity to volunteer. If there is no background screening policy for volunteers, ask for one. It is important that schools establish criteria for background checks, and guidelines for unsupervised access to children. What level of access is the volunteer given? Are they alone with children in the classroom? Are they transporting students in a vehicle? Are they acting as the primary student supervisors on overnight trips?
As a parent and human resources professional, I believe that all concerned parents should be active in ensuring that a background screening process is in place for all people who come into contact with their child at school. There is nothing more important than the safety and security of our children. As our children return to school this fall, I recommend that we ask our school administrators the following questions. With the answers to these questions, we learn what policies and procedures may need improvement, and where schools may even be exceeding our expectations:
1. Does the school have a policy in place to ensure background screening for all employees of the school? Are teachers, crossing guards, teaching assistants, nurses, cafeteria workers, maintenance people – virtually all paid employees – screened?
2. What type of background screening is conducted on employees? Is a national criminal background check conducted? Is the school conducting drug and alcohol testing?
3. Does the school permit parents, grandparents and other family members to volunteer?
4. Are non-familial relations (i.e., area residents, nannies, family friends) permitted to volunteer?
5. Is there mandatory background screening for all school volunteers – whether they are family members or non-familial relations?
While some schools engage only in limited county or state checks, the national criminal background check offers the most comprehensive way to investigate someone’s criminal history within the United States. A national criminal background check searches for criminal and county court records, correctional facility records, and sex offender, terrorist and most wanted criminal records. National criminal background reports show current and historical felony convictions and misdemeanor offenses.
Federal and state laws strictly regulate drug testing procedures in order to protect the interests and rights of employers and employees. Should teachers be randomly drug-tested? Practices vary across the country. Teacher drug testing was the subject of court cases in North Carolina and West Virginia, where educators argued that time and costs associated with random tests would be better spent in the classroom. Hence, it is no surprise that if our nation’s teachers are not subject to drug screening, the volunteers are also getting a free pass. Every school should include a careful review of its state’s laws, as well as teacher’s contracts and union agreements, when developing a background screening policy
In addition to wanting to serve the best interest of the students, many school boards are open to the idea of background screening because they understand the risks they take by not doing so. The school itself is likely to be held responsible if a child is placed in danger from a volunteer or an employee. For the safety of our students, parents’ peace of mind and fiscal health of the school, it makes sense for schools to implement a comprehensive background screening program.
As parents, we are the best advocates for our children’s safety, and schools should truly be a safe haven.
Parents, along with parent’s associations, teachers’ unions and school officials, should review the level of access volunteers are granted to the children when building an effective volunteer background check program. Children are our most precious resource and they must be vigorously protected. Ensuring that “wolves in volunteers’ clothing” don’t enter our children’s vulnerable world is of paramount importance.