Honey Dozier fits the profile of a parent commonly rejected by Jefferson County Public Schools. She’s white, female and has a criminal record for a past non-violent offense.
When she was 18—before her first child was born—she made a mistake, she says.
It was a big mistake. She stole and used other people’s credit cards—that’s a felony. But that was nearly two decades ago, she says.
”What I did was wrong, clearly, but it should not keep me from going on field trips for 19 years,” she says.
Hundreds of Louisville parents have been blocked from volunteering at their children’s schools because of their criminal records. Most of those crimes are for non-violent drug offenses and don’t involve children. And the schools that ban the most parents have more low-income students—the schools that most need parent involvement. The situation can lead to hours of missed opportunities.
Stories like Dozier’s are common throughout the U.S.
Last year, Cranston Public Schools in Rhode Island revised its volunteer policy after a woman who was barred from volunteering because of prior drug arrests sued the district. In Grand Rapids, Mich., parents with criminal backgrounds petitioned against the district’s policy, which was later addressed and clarified.
JCPS schools with the neediest students are also rejecting the most volunteers.
More than 60 percent of the rejections in the 2010-2011 year were related to drug offenses and the average number of years between the conviction and volunteer application was six, according to a JCPS report.
“At what point do I receive that acknowledgement that my time is done and over with and me and my family can move on from that,” Dozier says.
Kentucky requires all schools to perform state background checks on volunteers, but after that the local districts set the rules for who can participate and how. For example, in Washington County, those with drug offenses on their records are banned from volunteering for four years. After that, they can be “approved with caution” and are allowed certain access to schools. After seven years, that title may be removed and the applicant may have the chance to volunteer on a full-time basis.
Officials for the Kentucky School Boards Association say they have over 100 different district policies governing volunteer practices in their database, though many are similar.
JCPS is among the districts that ban prior felons with no appeals process and no way to serve out their time, but JCPS spokesman Ben Jackey says the district holds volunteers to the same standards as staff.
“If you’re not able to be an employee at Jefferson County Public Schools, why would we allow volunteers to come in and set the bar lower?” he says.
The system isn’t foolproof.
Last year, Kentucky started charging districts the $10 fee for each background check they issued. Some districts transfer the cost to the applicant, but JCPS pays the fees itself, says Allene White Gold, director of the volunteer talent center for JCPS.
Previously, background checks were issued each year for every applicant who applied.
To save money, JCPS decided to issue one background check for each volunteer applicant the first time they apply, which is the minimum required by state law.
Now the district mostly relies on the honor system and parents are told they need to inform the school if they’ve committed a crime, Gold says.
“We hope that parents do that, but we also know someone in the community tells the principal, someone sees it in the newspaper, it gets back to the principal so we’re not solely relying on the honor system,” she says.
Gold says parents and others who are rejected can still participate in their student’s education, which studies show can lead to better grades and higher graduation rates.
But JCPS hasn’t done a great job communicating how to do this. For example, parents can still have lunch with their child and participate in the PTA. They can go on field trips, but only if they transport themselves and only supervise their child. For the first time this year JCPS will be sending home these details to rejected guardians.
However, Dozier says she wants full access to what other parents have and she feels the schools are preventing her from having a larger role in the education of her four children.
“It’s embarrassing to talk with other mothers and say you can’t go on the field trip so it was something that I actually kept a secret,” she says.
There are several parents like Dozier. In 2010, 1,013 applicants were rejected from volunteering, which is around 4.5 percent of those who applied.
Also, some states, including Kentucky, don’t require a national criminal records check, which would catch crimes committed in other states, says the U.S. Department of Education.
Whether rejecting parents correlates to safer schools is unknown.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Education say they have no research on background checks.
Some critics of the background checks—like Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the controversial article in the New York Sun, “Why I Let My 9-Year Old Ride The Subway Alone”—argues parents are too protective of their children.
Skenazy has received hundreds of comments and emails on background checks from her blog, Free Range Kids.
She notes an email she received from a parent who can’t serve as a field trip chauffeur because of a 14-day driver’s license suspension when the parent was 16.
Skenazy says we live in a culture of fear and schools may want to protect themselves from lawsuits and other issues that could come up from not issuing background checks. She adds the threat to a child is instead outside the school.
“I don’t think kids are in danger of anybody who does have a small infraction in the past who’s come to read aloud to the class or help chaperone a field trip to the museum of natural history. What is the assumption that could go wrong?”
JCPS officials say they don’t want rejected volunteers to feel like they’re shut off completely from participating in school activities and they encourage parents to participate in the ways they can.
But parents like Dozier argue that’s not enough.
“If I can live with my child and raise a child and be its sole provider I should definitely be able to come with my child on a field trip,” she says.
What rejected parents currently can do:
- Visit their student’s classroom and volunteer in class on an occasional basis as long as JCPS teacher or staff is present
- Attend parent/teacher conferences and other school activities where parents are invited
- Belong to the school PTA
- Have lunch with their student
- Attend a field trip with their student to a public venue at their own expense provided they do not utilize district transportation and are not responsible for chaperoning other students
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