A Worthwhile Balancing Act: Criminal Background Checks on School Volunteers

New legislation mandating criminal background checks (see here and here) and providing assistance to schools and youth organizations has been a very popular topic for the last several months; and rightly so. In my opinion a mandatory policy of investigating the criminal history of everyone who will have the ability to freely interact with children is essential to create the safest possible environment. I don’t know that you will find anyone who would disagree that the well-being of our children is of the utmost importance. Beyond that, schools and youth organizations have a duty to protect the children for which they are responsible and to maintain an environment where they feel safe. That duty should also extend to volunteers.

First, I would like to say that a combination of checks would be the most effective in determining the criminal history of personnel and volunteers. In addition to FBI fingerprint checks, I would, at the very least, recommend performing state-wide criminal record inquiries and sex offender database checks (a search of county level records is also important, but not cost-effective for most school budgets). This expanded research would increase the likelihood of finding each criminal record and identifying potential predatory individuals. Of course, these checks should be performed by a qualified screening company or a school employee who is experienced and diligent. This should be repeated on a regular basis, either every six months or annually as the budget allows.

The answer is not simply to implement criminal record checks for all volunteers. There needs to be a well thought out policy which balances the safety of the children with the ability of qualified volunteers, who may happen to have a record, to apply. This is where we can run into a potential issue with mandatory criminal background investigations.

For instance, if a school has a broad policy of banning all individuals with any criminal records, then they may have a large number of parents and volunteers who will be disqualified. Recent studies vary as to the exact number of Americans with a criminal history, but estimates place the figure at 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 people with some form of record. Depending on the policy, you may have an issue where large numbers of individuals believe they are being discriminated against. This situation could, and most likely will, result in a lawsuit challenging the policy.

So instead of a policy that prohibits individuals with any type of record, consider limiting the scope of the ban to all felonies or to crimes involving violence, sexual assault, drugs, etc. In those situations where it is not so clear cut if someone with a criminal record should be banned, such as recent misdemeanors or decades-old records, permission to volunteer could be decided on a case-by-case basis. That way the organization or school board could fully review each matter before making a final decision.

When drafting your policy you should give applicants the ability to dispute the findings in the event they are incomplete or inaccurate. I would also be mindful of the volunteer applicant’s privacy since, despite criminal filings being a matter of public record, their criminal past may not be common knowledge. Perhaps releasing an ‘approved volunteer’ list rather than a list of those banned would limit the invasion of privacy issue and still allow only select individuals to volunteer.

The other argument that I have heard against a policy banning all persons convicted of a crime is that volunteers will be discouraged from applying or participating at places that investigate their applicants. That may be true to some degree, but most parents and well-meaning individuals would not object to an across the board criminal record check. Not only would it show that the organization or school is taking the safety of the children seriously, but it would deter those who have ulterior motives in volunteering. These people who seek out children for terribly inappropriate purposes would be deterred from applying to that specific school in the first place. Not to mention that if they did apply, then the applicant’s history as a violent criminal or sex offender would be discovered long before they were allowed near a child.

As more schools and organizations institute a background check policy, more people will be affected. I fully support background checks on volunteers, and anyone who will have any meaningful contact with children. It will further protect them and, despite any potential conflicts, I believe it to be necessary. If schools and organizations pair comprehensive criminal record checks with a common sense policy and apply it consistently, then they will be that much closer to providing a safe environment for the children. With more states and organizations absorbing or offsetting the costs of performing criminal record checks, it makes perfect sense. Our children will be safer, and at the end of the day isn’t that what really matters?

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