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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

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.


Article Comments



Jan-22-13 4:20 PM

If we lived in a less litigious society, perhaps school boards would not be so fearful of displaying a bit of common sense in making their decisions. However (speaking of common sense), it must be said that background checks should be required for all employees/volunteers involved with schools or children. The Doyle case may have been an atypical instance that resulted (in the end) in a better-worded policy.


Jan-15-13 6:18 PM

And both places were asking for volunteers. The knee jerk reaction to 9-11 along with groups such as STOP have greatly impeded personal freedoms. It is truly sad.


Jan-15-13 2:38 AM

And both places lost out on good volunteers because of their ridiculous policies. I noticed some of those regs during the flood and thought they were unnecessary. In a lot of ways the country is less free than it was even a decade ago.


Jan-14-13 10:19 PM

another example was with the Red Cross during the flood. I went to volunter, my name was put on a list. Next day I went back, they lost was 'gone'. Then, when I pressed them, I was told that they required a back round check for any area where a volunter may come in contact with the public. I have lived in Minot all my life, yet when they were asking for volunteers, I could not be used. I wonder how many criminals/terrorists they have prevented from volunteering? I wonder how much money is spent on that?


Jan-14-13 7:29 PM

It takes three months or longer for the complete background check, so it also makes it impossible to volunteer while living in a different area for a few months such as does a traveling nurse. And the federal background check will not accept the background check done by state licensures, hospitals, or companies involved in placing nurses. I didn't say it made sense. My record is completely clean and would have loved to have helped care for the azaleas at the Aboretum near DC. I guess the background checks started after 911.


Jan-14-13 6:23 PM

And what sense does that make? I suppose if there's any risk they might come into contact with the general public and have a violent criminal offense on their record there might be cause for extra caution.

This sort of requirement makes it hard for people who have a blemished record to reintegrate into society. What are people supposed to do if their movements are restricted, if they can't find work or get an apartment or volunteer at their kid's school or go to church, etc.? People have to be allowed to rehabilitate themselves and have a real shot at living a life.


Jan-14-13 5:49 PM

Volunteers must go through a complete background check to work in any national park, even if they are just there to move or improve the growth of Azaleas.


Jan-14-13 5:11 PM

You can't make something entirely safe and, if you try, you raise emotional cripples. I think the current national dialogue about school safety borders on hysteria. Do we really want to raise kids who are sure boogeymen lurk around every corner when these incidents are so very rare?

The Sandy Hook Elementary school had a pretty good security system for an elementary but it was still possible for someone to get in with a gun. Kids are far more likely to be abused by family members or family friends than they are in a school setting, too. School volunteers usually are working in a public setting with several other adults. They're not likely to do anything or get away with doing anything to a kid, even if they wanted to.


Jan-14-13 3:24 PM

That is the problem isn't it? How much regulation are we all willing to accept in order to feel safe, but yet still feel that we are not giving up to much of our individual liberties and freedoms.


Jan-14-13 10:51 AM

Well, adoptive parents have to and there's probably an argument to be made there that overly stringent requirements discourage people who would be good parents from trying to adopt. I don't think a criminal record when someone is in their teens or early 20s necessarily means they're going to be a bad parent or unfit to volunteer in the schools. People do grow and change, like this woman did.

Any other attempt to regulate parenthood would be tyranny.


Jan-13-13 8:47 PM

Should people pass a background check before becoming parents?


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