Pinellas might ease school policy blocking felons from volunteering

Published Oct. 5, 2014

Pinellas County school officials are re-examining the district's policy barring parents and other people with felony convictions from volunteering in schools.

The concern was raised by two candidates for the Pinellas County School Board who say the volunteer rules keep parents convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses from being active in their children's education.

In August, the Tampa Bay Times told the story of a Lakewood Elementary School PTA president who rallied 60 parents to her meetings, only to lose her post over past felony convictions for check fraud.

"When the story was written, it came to our attention, and we decided (the policy) warranted an examination," a spokeswoman for deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said.

Pinellas' policy says no person with a felony conviction for sexual crimes, lewd and lascivious crimes, or child abuse is allowed to volunteer in the schools — a point no one argues.

The district also keeps out parents convicted of selling drugs any time in the past 25 years, along with parents who have committed any other felony in the past 10 years. If the crime was committed longer ago, Pinellas can still decide to ban offenders from its volunteer programs.

School officials said the volunteer policy was designed to keep children safe — their top priority. About 200 people were deemed ineligible to volunteer in district schools last year after failing background checks.

In Hillsborough County, background checks that return felony convictions are handled on a case-by-case basis, spokesman Steve Hegarty said in an email. Anything involving a violent or sexual offense is a "disqualifier."

As for other felonies, "Drug offenses is a classic case-by-case situation. Depending on the severity (small amount of pot versus selling crack) and things like 'Did it occur in 1974 or 2014?' are factors," Hegarty said.

Pasco County forwards serious offenses for review but doesn't have a rigid system on what's forbidden, like Pinellas does.

Beverley Billiris, who is running for the District 4 Pinellas County School Board seat, and Kent Curtis, who lost his bid for the board in the August primary, both said during their campaigns that Pinellas' policy creates barriers to parent engagement in the communities that need it most.

Billiris is a former Tarpon Springs Elementary School teacher who says she had to turn away parents who wanted to chaperone field trips but had served time for nonviolent, nonsexual offenses.

Ken Peluso, whom Billiris faces in November, said he can see both sides of the issue.

Curtis' children attended Lakewood Elementary, where he watched a highly effective PTA president, Simona Bain, lose her seat in 2008. Bain was released from prison in February 2006 after serving nine months for check fraud.

Lakewood, along with four other St. Petersburg elementaries, was named among the 25 worst schools in the state for reading proficiency in 2014.

Rene Flowers, the School Board member who represents the neighborhood surrounding Lakewood, told district officials to put the volunteer policy on the board's agenda after reading about Bain in the Times.

"Give me a break, 25 years?" Flowers said, referring to the Pinellas policy on some convictions. "How can you say one thing out one side of your mouth, that we want parents being involved, and then condemn them out the other side of your mouth?"

Curtis said he was pleased to hear that Pinellas was exploring changes, though he lost his bid for the District 3 seat to incumbent Peggy O'Shea.

"I think it's critical, and if the School Board is going to ever have credibility for making the claim that they want parent involvement, they have to accept the hand they were dealt with," including parents with criminal records, Curtis said. "I think this is a great step in the right direction."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow @lisagartner.