Over my 12 years of working with family and community volunteers to support safe school environments, the question inevitably comes up, "Do the volunteers at our school receive background checks before they are allowed to participate?"
The answer to this question lies at the district level and sometimes at the state level, but it is implemented/enforced at the school level. Some states mandate background checks, though I have seen several schools/districts that do not comply with the policy. Experience shows us that less than 25 percent of schools/districts conduct background checks on their volunteers. I am not writing this article to pass judgment. The reality is, good people do bad things, bad people do good things and some people have never been caught. How good is a background check if they have never been caught?
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Despite this challenge, volunteers are an essential element to support the educational process within any school. The district needs to determine which volunteers must be screened. Will it be all volunteers (home room moms/dads, school-related event support, etc.), or will it only be volunteers who serve multiple days at the school (coaches, one-to-one mentoring, community volunteers without students in the district, etc.)? The district must resolve this decision first before moving forward in writing its policy.
The goal is to attract qualified volunteers. Knowing this, the school district's policy needs to be communicated effectively so individuals will complete the background check form. Here are the details that should be listed within the policy for an individual to feel confident in completing the form:
- List the volunteer roles that require a background check form to be completed. Not all roles may need to complete the form.
- Agencies conducting the review: Prospective volunteers want to know their information is protected and will be reviewed by authorized personnel only (local police department, state police, etc.).
- Explain the cost and who covers the cost. Is it shared between the school/district and the individual? Due to local relationships between police departments and school districts, costs are often waived. This also depends on the extent of the background check and time needed for the individual reviews.
- Describe the offenses or health issues that are reasons for rejection. This is the sticky part for many school districts when writing their policy. How do you define acceptable/unacceptable behavior? Do you draw a hardline by stating if you have a felony, you can't volunteer? Health is listed because at least one state's policy requires all volunteers to pass a Hepatitis C screening.
- How many years back will be reviewed? To increase the number of potential volunteers, will you put a time limit? Forty year-old parents who had history when they were in their late teens and early twenties may need a reprieve so they can be rewarded for their positive decisions and committing to their family and children's education.
- Ensure confidentiality: Once the background check form is filled out by the individual, it should be sealed in an envelope until it is opened by the agency conducting the check. Only a pre-determined administration team will have access to the form.
- Describe how long it will take for the applicant to be notified of the decision. Will the individual receive a phone call, letter, E-mail, etc.? Will it be a pass/fail letter only, or will it provide a reason for a rejection?
- Describe how often the background check will be conducted. Any background check is only as good as of the date the report was pulled. Every 24 hours following, the credibility diminishes. Some districts require checks every two years on volunteers. It is difficult for me to consider a once- or twice-a-year check as a credible policy. Innovative schools have electronic check-in ID tag systems that will do a full background check or at the very least scan the sex offender registry each day the volunteer supports the school.
If you are going to conduct background checks, fully commit, be consistent and do it well so that you can establish a precedent.
For those schools that choose not to conduct volunteer background checks, be certain to approve each volunteer by confirming their connection to your school. Also make sure your volunteers are highly visible/recognizable and in public view to support good decision-making and accountability during their designated time/role.
Finally, each volunteer needs to be trained and have a reason for serving at the school. If there is not a need for the volunteer, they need to leave the campus.
Scott Huse is the CIO for Schools And Families Engaged, LLC. Their S.A.F.E. TEAM program is a school-based volunteer program actively engaging families and the community to serve one day all day to support personal responsibility, safety and education on campus. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (630) 427-4993 ext. 3.
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