School Safety Challenged by Volunteer Criminal Backgrounds

Posted by on September 23, 2010

Is the parent volunteer in your child’s school a convicted sex offender or drug dealer?

School officials struggle balancing parental involvement and protecting students from adults with criminal backgrounds who want to volunteer at their child’s school.  The tension was highlighted in Wednesday’s Associated Press article entitled Would-be School Volunteers Thwarted By Their Past

Parent Volunteers with Criminal Histories Pose Complex Challenges 

In my interview with the AP reporter for this story, Eric Tucker, I discussed a number of complex issues with these situations:

  1. School officials are not trained experts in assessing recidivism risks of parents with criminal backgrounds. Can your elementary school principal assess and predict whether a parent convicted of drug use and sales five years ago will be a repeat offender?  Can the principal predict whether a grandfather convicted of sexual abuse of a minor ten years ago will harm a student if he volunteers at his grandson’s school?  It is hard enough for psychiatrists and criminal justice professionals to evaluate criminal offenders. These are pretty unrealistic expectations to put upon a school principal, which makes case-by-case evaluation of volunteer requests by parents or family members with criminal histories a challenge.
  2. Most schools have limited resources to conduct criminal history checks, much less other more extensive background checks.  Many schools do not even conduct volunteer criminal history checks, which is a best practice, due to financial and staffing constraints.
  3. School officials cannot blindly give volunteers with criminal histories access without a case-by-case review.  While school administrators want parental involvement, and prefer to avoid confrontation and conflict with parents which would arise by challenging a parent on past criminal history, they have to deal with these situations. They can’t simply turn their heads and ignore this issue.
  4. There are parents with criminal histories who have reformed and do not have ill intentions.  In my years in school safety, I have met many parents with “less than stellar” backgrounds.  One interesting trend I’ve noticed, though, is that many (if not most) of them have wanted the best for their child at school.  Many want to support their child just like any other parent without a criminal history, and some are even more motivated to do so in order for their children to have a better opportunity than they had with bad choices in their lives.  And we know some of the parents with criminal histories have been “clean” in terms of no criminal record for many years since their last criminal record.  So we can understand the frustration of those who turned their lives around and simply want to support their child at school.

Unfortunately, these circumstances present quite a “teachable moment” about the long-term effects of criminal involvement.  Adults with criminal histories may have their encounter with police, the courts, and the correctional system in their rear-view mirror.  But the consequences long beyond the prison time, such as when issues arise with school volunteers with criminal histories, can be personally embarassing, hurtful, and long-lasting.  This might serve as a “teachable moment” for the younger generation of delinquent teens who often fail to think long-term.

Volunteer Background Checks, Policies, and Supervision are Essential

School leaders should conduct criminal history background checks on volunteers. They have an obligation to find out if they might be about to put a sexual offender in a classroom with elementary kids.  Schools should have legally-sound policies to govern the process of conducting the criminal history checks, as well as for evaluating situations on a case-by-case basis. 

It is also important that school leaders live up to their obligation to have school staff supervise all students even when volunteers are assisting in the classroom and school.  No volunteer, parent or otherwise, should be left  with children without a school employee present and supervising.

Parent volunteers contribute significantly to a school’s climate and a child’s educational experience.  Making it a safe process can keep such participation a wonderful experience for all. 

Ken Trump

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