Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

Pinellas schools requires tougher, costly background checks for some volunteers

For more than six years, Terry Molinaro has helped her son's teachers in elementary and middle school. She has commanded cars full of students during field trips. She has served as a PTA president. This year, she serves on a student disciplinary committee at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.

Molinaro knows that the staff and resources at some Pinellas County schools are stretched thin and that such places thrive with the help of volunteers.

So when school officials this year began strictly enforcing a district policy that requires rigorous and expensive background checks for some volunteers, Molinaro and others grew concerned.

The checks, known as a "Level II background screening," are required of all school volunteers who have unsupervised contact with students. They include a .check of criminal records, plus fingerprinting and a national criminal history check through the FBI. The cost of the screening for parents is between $48 and $51.

That's too much, some have said. And, they say, it has kept away many who want to help but can't afford the cost.

"The kids are going to suffer," Molinaro said. "I think they have suffered enough with budget cuts. It's an ugly situation."

The background checks are nothing new. Pinellas School District policy has required them for volunteers since 2009. Concerns only arose this year, after an annual review resulted in stricter enforcement of the existing policy.

Some people are willing to pay. So far this year, more than 750 volunteers have undergone the Level II screening, school officials said. One was rejected.

Schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez said Pinellas has some 11,000 active volunteers overall, and those who don't have unsupervised contact with youths don't need the more extensive screening.

For some, particularly in schools that serve lower-income students, there is concern that the screenings may drive volunteers away.

And the policy doesn't just affect students in the classroom.

Kaylyn Bayly, a volleyball and softball coach a Countryside High School, says a lack of qualified parental volunteers has made it difficult to transport students to games at other schools.

In past years, many student athletes would carpool with parents who drove them to and from sporting events. But now, with fewer parents available and eligible to provide transportation, the teams have had to rely on borrowed school buses, which are not as fast, comfortable or reliable, Bayly said.

"I'm all for making sure people are properly screened," she said, adding that the screenings have resulted in an undue burden. "Financially we save money for the district by providing our own transportation."

School Board chairwoman Robin Wikle, who expressed concerns about the screening policy during a discussion with other board members last month, noted that she would have been financially unable to volunteer at her own children's school had the same policy been in place years ago.

"It does eliminate some potential volunteers because of the price," Wikle said. But, she said, the crux of the issue is safety.

"I would be hard-pressed to loosen a policy that is in place to ensure the safety and security of our students," she said.

The Pinellas policy is tougher than state law, which does not require Level II screenings for volunteers. Hillsborough County's policy is similar to Pinellas' and requires Level II screening for volunteers who have "one-on-one unsupervised interaction" with students. Pasco County, on the other hand, does not allow volunteers to have unsupervised contact with students, and therefore does not require Level II screenings.

There have been a handful of cases in recent years in which school volunteers have been accused of inappropriate behavior with children and teens.

In 2009, Patrick J. Roberts, a former volunteer wrestling coach at East Lake High School, was sentenced to 15 years in prison following his conviction in a case in which two men claimed he molested them when they were between the ages of 12 and 17.

More recently, on Feb. 7, Pinellas sheriff's deputies arrested Steven James Andrews, a former band volunteer at Dunedin Highland Middle and Dunedin High schools. He is awaiting trial on charges that he paid a 12-year-old girl to pose for pictures while she was bound and gagged, then posted the photos on a sexual fetish website.

"We don't want to discourage anyone from volunteering," School Board member Glenton Gilzean said. "But if someone is going to be with our students and be unsupervised, we have to make sure it's going to be safe. Safety trumps all."

One thing on which all parties seem to agree is the need for more discussion of the policy and its effects. School Board members say they will bring it up at their October workshop.

"I understand the concern," Molinaro said. "But I somehow think there needs to be a meeting of the minds to come to an agreeable solution."

Times staff writers Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Curtis Krueger and Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]

This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: More rigorous, expensive background checks are being required of some volunteers in Pinellas County schools. A story Thursday overstated who was getting the checks. In addition, the Level II background check does not include an employment check. The story was incorrect on this point.

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