At their Dec. 10 meeting, the Cranston School Committee will vote on a new policy that requires volunteers in the district to undergo a more detailed background check. While only the first reading of the policy has been approved so far, the district is already operating under this policy, which Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten says is the result of a change in state law.
The amendment to General Law 16-2-18.1 requires volunteers in schools – parents or otherwise – to undergo both a local and a national background check, including fingerprinting, to identify any criminal history. In the past, only a local background check was required.
“I don’t think we can be too careful when it comes to our kids. I would rather err on the side of caution,” Lundsten said, adding that the district’s legal counsel recommended that the district begin acting on the policy immediately.
The superintendent agrees with the spirit of the policy but does have concerns with the burden it could place on families. The cost for a national background check is $35, which would be incurred by the volunteer.
“I’m certainly concerned about parents being able to afford that,” she said.
Lundsten informed principals and PTO presidents about the change in policy with an e-mail, and in her conversations with these stakeholders assured them that the district would be willing to work with families that might not be able to afford the fee.
“We’ll figure out a way to make it work. We want to be family friendly,” she said.
This policy does not apply to perennial volunteers. If an individual has already undergone the local background check and has volunteered at least once in the district in the past year, they will be grandfathered in under the old policy. The new requirements, then, would apply only to new volunteers or those who have not worked in the district in a year or more.
While School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi has volunteered in the past year, she said she would visit the Cranston Police Department to have a national check done “to demonstrate my commitment to ensuring our children’s safety.”
Volunteers are also required to complete an information and disclosure statement, including references, and must adhere to Cranston Public School policies such as the code of conduct and confidentiality policy.
Other precautions in the policy include requiring volunteers to wear visitors’ badges and sign in at the school office at their time of arrival. Volunteers are prohibited from being in one-on-one situations with children, requiring the presence of a classroom teacher, administrator or appropriate school personnel.
Requiring background checks of school volunteers has caused controversy in the past. In 2010, when the initial policy was enacted, a Cranston mom with a drug record filed a lawsuit against the district for discrimination. The woman had two felony drug convictions for possession of heroin, but the recovering addict had been clean for nearly 10 years before applying as a volunteer. In her lawsuit, filed on her behalf by the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, she claimed that the policy was discriminating against her on the basis of a disability. That case is not yet resolved two years later.
More recently, in Warwick, the change in state law shed doubt on how that district could continue its graduation by proficiency program. In the past, seniors in Warwick were required to spend at least 15 hours with a mentor who works in the field they chose to research and give a presentation on. In immediate response to the new policy, Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen directed students to communicate with their mentors through electronic means only. Warwick has not yet decided how they will alter the GBP program in future years.
Still, Lundsten has not yet received any complaints from parents or community members. She plans to solicit feedback from PTO presidents, the individuals most commonly organizing volunteer projects, during a quarterly meeting she conducts with them.
Iannazzi said she has not received any phone calls or e-mails from parents regarding the volunteer policy either. As a member of the committee, and a court appointed advocate by profession, Iannazzi says the policy rightfully protects Cranston students.
“Coming from a juvenile justice and child welfare background, I fully support the new state law. Protecting our children is a responsibility that legislators and school committee members feel strongly about,” she said.
In order to be eligible to volunteer in Cranston schools, individuals must be fingerprinted at either the Cranston Police Department or in the attorney general’s office. Lundsten recommends giving four weeks for the check to be completed.
If a parent or community member is turned down based on BCI results, they are able to appeal the decision to the superintendent and the School Committee. That appeal can be conducted either in private, during executive session, or during the public session portion of a School Committee meeting.
“Everyone has the right to due process. We would be looking to see if appropriate rehabilitation were in place,” Lundsten explained.
There are some crimes, however, that would altogether disqualify a potential volunteer, including first- and second-degree child molestation.
In other district news, Superintendent Lundsten is soliciting additional public feedback for the ongoing review of the Strategic Plan for Cranston Public Schools. After a series of public forums across the district, Lundsten is hoping to gain additional perspective through an online survey that was scheduled to be posted on the schools’ website by Wednesday at the latest. The survey, posted on the homepage within a message from Lundsten, also includes the superintendent’s direct e-mail address in case individuals would prefer to contact her directly. All comments and surveys will remain anonymous.
Lundsten said if the survey results were as thoughtful as parent feedback during these forums, the district would have a comprehensive, strong Strategic Plan.
“It made me feel very positive, like we can do this. We have the persistence and the willpower to do this kind of work,” she said.
The survey is not just for parents and students, but also for any community member with thoughts on public education.
“This will be our roadmap in the next three years, and it’s time for that to be revised and updated,” she said. “Everybody brings their own perspective to the Strategic Plan, and I need to hear from everybody in the district on this.”
The online survey includes 10 questions, covering satisfaction or lack thereof with district services and ideas for the future of Cranston schools. A question that Lundsten decided to add after looking at similar surveys conducted in districts elsewhere asks responders what their three wishes would be for the district if they had a magic wand. Hard copies of the survey will be available at the Central Administration building at Briggs and in the main offices of schools.
Surveys must be completed before Dec. 21, giving the administration time to review feedback and incorporate it into the revised Strategic Plan in time for a work session in May. Lundsten would like the final document to be adopted by June. She urged all Cranston residents to fill out the survey and said it should take only 15 minutes to complete.
“Many people don’t feel that they’re going to be listened to or it’s not going to be used, but I want to make sure that, at the end of the day, I have a representative sample across the district,” she said. “I would hope that they would see with the new leadership that the door is open and we want to hear their concerns.”
The Cranston Public Schools website can be found at www.cps.k12.ri.us.