"Take A Closer Look At Who You Employ"

Background check? So?

Source: News Observer
Date: January 08, 2005

Volunteering at school isn't as simple as it used to be.
As thousands of Triangle parents can attest, it now means filling out forms and possibly surrendering your privacy by going through a background check.

But the inconvenience is worth it, if you ask administrators who are running the Wake County school system's new volunteer registration program.

They point to about 200 people whose criminal or driving records have prevented them this year from having unsupervised access to students or from driving them around.

The four levels of volunteer activity in Wake County schools and the requirements for each:


Activity takes place with supervision in a public setting with little or no student contact. Examples: clerical work for a teacher, media center volunteer, resource speaker, beautification volunteer. No orientation or background check needed.


Activity takes place in a classroom or other public setting where adults can enter and observe at any time. Examples: classroom tutor, supervised field trip chaperone, field day volunteer, room parent. Orientation needed, but no background check.


Activity involves direct contact with students in a public setting under limited supervision by school staff. May involve access to confidential student information. Examples: unsupervised trip chaperone, one-on-one tutor outside the classroom, club sponsor, health room assistant, dance chaperone. Orientation and background check needed.


Activity involves unsupervised contact with a student on or off campus. Could take place in a private setting, such as a home. Examples: overnight field trips, volunteer coach, Communities in Schools volunteer. Orientation and background check needed.




"The parents have been so supportive," said Toni Cooper, Wake's volunteer coordinator. "Even when we've had to go over their records, they say they understand. We need to make sure we're protecting our children."

Wake and Johnston County, which also started a volunteer registration system this year, are latecomers in efforts to check on volunteers. Durham and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system have been doing such checks for years.

Wake, with 114,000 students, is by far the largest school district in the Triangle to try such monitoring. Nearly 27,000 volunteers have registered since the program began last summer, and 19,000 have passed background checks. Volunteers without unsupervised access to students don't need a background check.

"We knew we had volunteers, but not to this extent," Cooper said. "We've never had an actual count for our schools before."

Some PTA leaders were concerned that the program might discourage volunteerism from people with good intentions who wouldn't want someone to look into their pasts. But Liza Weidle, past president of the Wake County PTA Council, said there has been no indication that volunteerism is down.

"They're doing a phenomenal job with the program," she said.

Wake also made changes in the program in response to fears that it could discourage participation in Job Shadow Day, in which 15,000 students follow people at their workplaces.

Instead of requiring people at the businesses to register, Wake now requires registration only for people who drive students.

That made Junior Achievement of Eastern North Carolina, which is coordinating Job Shadow Day on Feb. 2, breathe easier.

"It's gone from 'OK, we're going to die' to 'We'll live,' " said Bob Brauer, president of the group.

Several Wake parents who regularly volunteer said they appreciate the new program.

"I'd rather be overcautious with their safety than deal with the aftermath of something happening to the children," said Theresa Moore, who has two children at Farmington Woods Elementary School in Cary.

4-tiered system

Like the other Triangle districts, Wake has a multitiered system of volunteers.

Those in the lowest tiers, levels I and II, have supervised access or no access to students. Level III and IV volunteers, who undergo background checks, include field trip chaperones, tutors and those who are with students when there is little or no supervision from teachers.

So many people registered for level III and IV in Wake that the budget for background checks was increased from $22,000 to $132,000, school district spokesman Bill Poston said.

Wake volunteers can fail a background check if they have a felony or misdemeanor on their record. But Cooper said she decides case by case.

Most of those who have failed have drug trafficking or assault convictions. Cooper said she also has rejected people who have been charged with sex offenses and child abuse.

"We're looking at [volunteers] to be good role models for students," she said. "That's why we're strict on drugs."

A few people have been barred from volunteering and visiting campuses at all, Cooper said. But in most cases, those denied level III or IV access can still be level I or II volunteers.

Also, some people who have multiple automotive violations have been barred from driving students.

Wake's system isn't perfect. For financial reasons, the district checks only North Carolina criminal records.

In contrast, Johnston does a national criminal search. Chapel Hill also does national checks, but only about 20 of them a year, said Mary Bushnell, the district's volunteer coordinator.

Cary's Farmington Woods Elementary has gone a step further than other Wake schools by issuing color-coded cards to volunteers showing what level of access they have with students.

As a volunteer who is alone with students at Farmington Woods' health clinic, dentist Lynn Godwin said she sees why background checks are needed.

"I'd know that if I had children in the clinic, I'd want [volunteers'] records checked," she said. "I don't know that I'd want my daughter riding with someone who has multiple moving violations."

'Massive undertaking'

In Johnston, school district officials are just starting to process applications, many of which went out to parents last week.

Assistant Superintendent Joyce Wade estimates that Johnston will do background checks on 3,000 existing volunteers over the next two months. "It's a massive undertaking," she said.

For now, current volunteers remain in schools. Wade is not sure when the new policy will be enforced in full.

"It's a work in progress that will take at least a month to get it well-greased," Wade said.