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Whoa, Momma!

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Tracey Henry and Suzannah DiMarzio

Will we have a year without field trips?



schoolzone.jpgOur colleague Dan Sullivan reports here that there's growing anger from parents at the new policy in Pinellas County schools that requires expensive background checks for any volunteer who is "unsupervised" with a child, as in driving a vanload of soccer players to a game or taking a carful of kids to a field trip. As we ranted last week, this is expensive window dressing that really does nothing but make the adults feel like they've done something to protect kids, yet Jerry Sandusky would have passed a Level 2 background check with flying colors. I'm trying to figure out how having 5 kids in my car constitutes being alone with a child, but that's how they see it.

I ran across this memo from DOE when the Jessica Lunsford Act was passed in 2005 that mandated Level 2 background checks for all staff and vendors at schools. Note that in Question 4 it says:

4.Does the Lunsford Act apply to school volunteers who serve as mentors or chaperones?
No, since the Lunsford Act does not apply to volunteers, the background check requirement would not apply to such persons, unless they had contracted with the district for some other reason unrelated to their duties as a volunteer. However, districts are advised that they have the discretion to establish standards applicable to volunteers, and must search volunteers against the sexual offender/predator database. See s. 943.04351, F.S.

So I'm guessing that the Legisature worried that an expensive background check would inhibit volunteers. That may very well end up being the case in Pinellas, especially for low-income families.

Pinellas County already screens all volunteers against the predator database, but it has now decided that any volunteers who are mentors or who transport kids to a field trip need this $50-$100 Level 2 background check. They also sent out a memo on Thursday saying they also want parents to take off work and come to the Largo school headquarters to get their picture taken for their badge between 9 a.m. and noon and 1-4 p.m.  "no appointment needed"  (Gee, how nice of them to not need appointments for yet another hurtle in front of volunteers). Oh, and I'm hearing from many parents who already have a Level 2 clearance for their jobs at a preschool or church or as a Realtor telling me that they have been rejected because that screening wasn't exactly the same. So they want them to pay again for the screening they already have.

Add to this that not all principals are following this policy the same way. Some are saying any volunteer who even attends a field trip, even if the staff is there to supervise, needs this fingerprinting. Others are trying to allow as much leeway as possible to bring parents along.  

Since I wrote that blog post last week, I've heard from more than a few longtime volunteers, even a PTA president, who tell me the surprise policy enforcement, followed by the lack of cooperation with parents and indifference to the hardship this can cause low-income schools, has them saying they will refuse on principle to pay for the privilege of volunteering. I hope we don't have a year without field trips but at a time when the budget for paper is cut, I can't see how they can come up with charter buses for every trip to the zoo.  

It's not just field trips. This also impacts smaller sports teams like volleyball, where parents typically carpooled to games instead of getting a school bus. A high school teacher I know wants to start up a disc golf club at his school and the best way to learn the sport would be hitting the many courses in the county parks. But parents won't be able to carpool to that without a Level 2 clearance.

Pinellas is the only county I've found that is doing this. And considering that 99.9 percent of volunteers are not causing a problem and the last two incidents of people caught messing with kids did have a Level 2 check, why are they digging in their heels over this?

--Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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[Last modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 10:09am]


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