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Schools Revisit Background Check Policy

by Melissa Bailey | Mar 24, 2014 8:40 am

(8) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools

Melissa Bailey Photo 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.

Felonies

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.”

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posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 24, 2014  9:00am

I’m generally opposed to allowing government to collect more information on us with little info on how that info will be used and shared. However,  in the case of deciding who will be around children I think it’s highly appropriate.  What I don’t find appropriate is having a committee to arbitrarily decide which felons should be excluded and which can be allowed. This seems to open a whole new question of liability and fairness. It’s the Board of Ed..not the parole board.

I applaud parents who want to be involved in their children’s lives. Unfortunately losing access to volunteering at your child’s school may be a useful collateral consequence of running afoul of the law

posted by: jdoss-gollin on March 24, 2014  9:24am

This seems like a step in the right direction. One question, though. Many students in the district (and their parents) are undocumented. Will these parents be blocked from volunteering in the school?

posted by: Hill Resident on March 24, 2014  11:16am

I think that the new revised policy is a great thing - for ALL. The volunteers are held to a standard that is fair and in the best interest of the children while allowing them to provide a service to the schools and children. It is all about what is best for the children. The working together and cooperation of all involved in this revision has netted a GREAT RESULT! See ... it DOES work!!!

posted by: JohnTulin on March 24, 2014  12:19pm

So, parents (with felons in their families) feel put out on the one hand….or more school safety on the other.  Sorry parents, safety and kids first!

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 24, 2014  1:04pm

I am a person who failed a background check at NHPS because of a inaccurate FBI record that I did not even know about. There should have been no record.

I finally got my record cleared after about a year or so but not before my reputation was sullied.

We have to be very careful about individual’s information and how it is used.

Unfortunately, municipal bureaucrats here in New Haven use or suppress information according to their whim and less to protect the citizenry—it all depends on who you know.

And given issues with many of our less affluent citizens, this is not good. And it is dismaying to read the comments thus far.

posted by: FairHavenRes on March 24, 2014  1:12pm

JohnTulin, what your saying makes no sense.  If I want to volunteer at a school, it should not make a difference if I’m related to someone who is a felon.  My relative isn’t volunteering, I am; it doesn’t improve the safety of the kids to exclude me from volunteering.  We need to encourage parental involvement at our schools, not place unnecessary and illogical roadblocks.  I’m glad they’re finally realizing this and working to include more people.

posted by: Bill Saunders on March 24, 2014  4:12pm

Brutus,

I am with you on this one.  I have direct corroboration of ‘it’s who you know’ in New Haven.

Imagine my surprise when I showed up in court one day for my minor Ideat Village charges, only to find out that I had been confused with somebody of the same name, different skin color and age, that had 22 felonies to his name…...

The lay of the land in New Haven is tilled by tainted hands…..

posted by: ech on March 25, 2014  4:02am

NHI, could you please clarify? Will DCF checks be required or not? Why were they initially instituted? The decision-making here, and some of Wesselberg’s comments seem a bit haphazard.

Finally, the statement from some parents, “if you exclude everyone with felony records, many New Haveners—especially blacks and Latinos—would be barred from volunteering in the schools at all” is inaccurate at best and racist at worst. Are these parents making decisions for the schools?

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