Before a person can volunteer inside a public school in New Haven, he or she has to go through a background check—not a personal check, but one of everyone in the volunteer’s household, including adult children who have moved away.
The school district is revising that policy after parents called the new guidelines “intrusive” and unfair.
Sue Weisselberg, the district’s head of wraparound services, announced that development at a recent meeting of the Citywide Parent Leadership Team at Wilbur Cross High School.
The controversial policy took effect about a year ago, around the time of the Sandy Hook school shootings, Weisselberg said. (She said she doesn’t know whether it was related to the shootings.) New Haven’s school district began to ask more of the people looking to enter its schools.
In addition to criminal background checks, the school district began to require school volunteers to undergo full family background checks by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF). The check requires the name and past names of the volunteer, as well as all other current and past members of the volunteer’s household, including adult children who have left the home.
Volunteer groups and parents have bristled at this request.
Parents trying to volunteer in classrooms “would get into the main office and they were stopped dead in their tracks,” said Daisy Gonzalez, a parent activist who recently joined the school board.
Gonzalez, who has volunteered at East Rock Magnet School for decades, said she found the DCF check “a little uncomfortable.”
“If I’m going to volunteer at the school, check me,” she said. “Why do you need info on my 18-year-old son?”
“The rules are a little too hard,” agreed Hillhouse High mom Loreen Lawrence (pictured). “Parents feel shut out.”
Weisselberg said once the district heard that feedback, it asked the state if the DCF checks were necessary. She learned that DCF must conduct background checks on all school employees, but not on volunteers.
Weisselberg and a special task force set about revising the policy. She said she couldn’t find a written copy of the existing policy, so the group drafted a new one from scratch.
She said one benefit of requiring full DCF checks is to align with what some outside mentoring groups, such as the Gang of Dads, require. It makes sense to have a uniform process for background checks for mentors, so that they can switch between groups without going through more red tape, she said. But she said she also heard the feedback that the checks were too “intrusive” for everyday volunteers.
The school district settled on a compromise. The new draft policy proposes creating three categories of school visitors, and a different level of screening for each:
Level One: Visitors
Visitors would not be required to obtain a background check to get into schools. But they would still have to buzz into the school through the security system and sign in when they get there.
Level Two: Volunteers
People who want to volunteer in schools would be required to go through a criminal history check based on their Social Security number. The district would also check their driving history, residency, sex-offender registry status, and “personal characteristics.” They would go through a partial DCF check—of only the volunteer, not that person’s family members.
Level Three: Mentors
A mentor would go through the entire screening process required of volunteers. In addition, DCF would check the histories of the mentor’s family members.
What would the district do with this information? Some parents protested that if you exclude everyone with felony records, many New Haveners—especially blacks and Latinos—would be barred from volunteering in the schools at all.
Weisselberg said the district has to find a way to keep kids safe while also not not creating unfair barriers to let New Haveners who want to volunteer.
“We want a comfort level with the person that we’re sending to work with our kids,” she said. But the school district doesn’t want to automatically exclude someone from volunteering because of a felony conviction, she said.
To that end, she proposed creating a new committee that would decide on a case-by-case basis whether people with felony records can help out in schools. The committee would review the type and the severity of the offense, and “may interview the applicant” about it. A principal would retain the right to bar that person from volunteering in his or her individual school.
Because DCF checks can take months, the school district called for granting temporary permission to fast-track volunteers with clean records. Volunteers who pass a criminal history check could start volunteering in schools if they sign an affidavit stating they don’t have any criminal convictions that will come up on a DCF check and disqualify them from working at a school. Volunteers would also have to be supervised at all times until they get full clearance from DCF.
Southern Connecticut State University handles volunteers with a similar affidavit, according to school board President Carlos Torre, who works there.
Weisselberg said the new policy is still in draft form.
“We still need to run it by lawyers,” she said. But “I think this addresses what we were hearing, including the felony issue.”
The proposal met a warm welcome from parents and school staff at last week’s Citywide Parent Leadership Team meeting.
Gonzalez, who has been vocal about this issue at school board meetings, said she was hopeful that the revisions would let more parents inside schools.
“As a parent, I’m worried” about intruders making trouble in schools, she said. But at the same time, parents can’t be “locked out.”
“They want to feel welcome in school.”