Screen for Wolves in School Volunteers’ Clothing

Questions to ask when developing or reviewing a school background screening policy for both employees and volunteers.

By Bill Tate, President, HR Plus

The successful operation of a K-12 school requires capable administrators to provide instructional leadership and manage the day-to-day activities of our schools. Administrators with bottom-line responsibilities often encourage parents and other responsible adults to volunteer to offset the budget challenges many schools face. Volunteers provide thousands of hours of help every year to children and teachers across the country. While these volunteers do not teach class or assign grades, they often step in to assist with extra-curricular activities, field trips, special events, and after-school programs.

As the holiday season swings into full gear, there are many opportunities for adults to volunteer and support school activities. While the majority of school volunteers are law-abiding role models, unsavory adults sometimes do come into the mix. Predators, or “wolves in volunteers’ clothing,” can be quite wily at finding ways to be near children, and they sometimes assume the role of school volunteer. When infamous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he stole from banks, he said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

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?

More and more districts across the country are adopting policies that ensure volunteers are screened through a criminal background check before working with children. School districts in Charlotte, Nashville, Seattle, and San Antonio, for example, actively screen volunteers who will interact with students. In 2007, the Board of Education in Norwalk, CT, adopted a policy requiring that adults who volunteer to assist Norwalk Public Schools, in certain situations, submit to a background check that includes fingerprinting and a national criminal database review for criminal records or involvement with Child Protective Services.

Screening for Everyone

Depending on the role of the volunteers and the level of supervision they will have, I believe school volunteers should be subject to the same screening criteria as a school employee. While a growing number of public and private schools across the country have implemented strict background screening policies for volunteers, others believe background checks on school 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 someone has a criminal history or is living under an alias. Most parents I know don’t want volunteers who have misdemeanor and felony convictions at their schools.

As a parent and human resources professional, I believe all school administrators should be active in ensuring a background screening process is in place for all people who come into contact with their students at school. There is nothing more important than the safety and security of our children. Administrators should work in concert with the Board of Education and the school’s parents’ association to ensure there is a high level of security established at each school with volunteers.

When developing or reviewing a school background screening policy, the answers to these questions may help identify areas in need of improvement:

  1. Does the school have a policy in place to ensure background screening for all its employees? 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? Does the school conduct drug and alcohol testing?
  3. Does the school permit parents, grandparents, and other family members to act as volunteers?
  4. Does the school permit non-familial relations (i.e., area residents, nannies, family friends) to act as volunteers?
  5. Is there mandatory background screening for all school volunteers—whether they are family members or non-familial relations?

National Criminal Background Check

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, volunteers also are getting a free pass. Every school should include a careful review of its state’s law, as well as teachers’ contracts and union agreements, when developing a background screening policy.

The school is likely to be held responsible if a child is placed in danger from a volunteer or an employee. For the safety of the students, the parents’ peace of mind, and the fiscal health of the school, it makes sense to implement a comprehensive background screening program.

It is important that schools establish criteria for background checks, and guidelines for unsupervised access to children, before accepting volunteer applicants. Administrators should work with parents’ associations, teachers, school officials, and unions to develop policies and processes to help safeguard students. 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.

William (Bill) J. Tate is president of HR Plus, a provider of comprehensive employment and background screening solutions and a division of AlliedBarton Security Services, a provider of highly trained security personnel. Tate can be reached at WTate@hrplus.com. For more information, visit http://www.HRPlus.com.

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