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School Board candidates explore Pinellas' policy on felony records

Simona Bain, who led the parent-teacher group at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, lost her position when a background check showed that she spent less than a year in prison for writing bad checks.
Simona Bain, who led the parent-teacher group at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, lost her position when a background check showed that she spent less than a year in prison for writing bad checks.
Published Aug. 24, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Food helped. So when Simona Bain told parents about the meetings, she told them of the pies she had sweet-talked from Pizza Hut and the platters coming in from Beef 'O' Brady's. Money was tight, she knew, for families at Lakewood Elementary, so she promised gas station gift cards to those who raised the most funds. By the spring of 2007, the school's parent-teacher organization had 50 to 60 parents at its meetings. They held field days, planted gardens, got on their knees to put on puppet shows.

It sounds like the stuff of legend now for the Midtown St. Petersburg 'F' school, where teachers grouse over the lack of parent involvement and district officials scheme to send social workers to children's homes.

In some ways, it is legend: Under Pinellas policy, the 2007-08 school year was too good to be true. Bain lost her presidency when a background check showed she had spent less than a year in prison for writing bad checks.

Pinellas, along with many school districts, has strict rules barring parents, guardians and other adults with criminal backgrounds from volunteering in the school system.

About 200 people were deemed ineligible to volunteer in district schools last year after failing background checks.

School officials said this is common sense: Their top priority is to keep children safe.

But the issue has quietly surfaced in two Pinellas School Board races. Both Beverley Billiris, a former teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary, and Kent Curtis, a former Lakewood parent, said there should be more exceptions made for parents who have turned their lives around after committing nonviolent, nonsexual offenses.

The goal is to remove barriers to parent engagement in the schools that need it the most; schools like Lakewood, one of the 10 lowest-achieving schools in the state.

Curtis, whose children went to Lakewood, said Bain was the best PTA president they ever had.

"I think what Simona was creating could have changed everything for that school."

• • •

In 2005, the Florida Legislature passed the Jessica Lunsford Act, named for the 9-year-old girl who was assaulted and murdered in Homosassa Springs by a man who worked as a subcontracted mason at her school. The law stepped up screenings for sexual predators among contractors and others with access to school campuses.

These standards did not apply to school volunteers, but many districts looked to them when setting volunteer policies, said Ruth Melton, director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

"School districts tend to err on the conservative side. The safety of the student always comes first, and if there's any question, the district tends to side with the student rather than authorizing a volunteer that might be questionable," Melton 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 last 25 years, along with parents who have committed any other felony in the last 10 years. If the crime was committed longer ago, Pinellas still can decide to ban offenders from its volunteer programs.

"The entire premise of the system is safety, and not just for students but for staff, too," said Valerie Brimm, director of strategic partnerships for the district.

There is an appeals process where parents can bring letters of reference or explain their criminal background more fully.

"Domestic battery — that's a common one, and some of those cases are overturned. There are extenuating circumstances," she said. "The hard-core pieces," including drug offenses, "are very seldom successful."

Pinellas' policy isn't far off from other districts in Florida. In March, Seminole barred a mother from volunteering in its school system because more than a decade earlier, at 22, she was present during a drug deal.

"My sentence was not a life sentence, and I completed the terms of my probation in 2007, yet I am still punished in multiple aspects of my life," Theresa Seigler wrote on a Facebook page she named "The Momvict."

Last summer, a pastor who mentored students in Hernando County schools was kicked off school grounds when a background check showed he had pled guilty to grand theft in 1996.

In Pinellas, School Board candidates with recent experience in elementary schools said the policy should be applied on a case-by-case basis, and that the appeals process puts a burden on parents who already feel humiliated.

Billiris, the former teacher, said she became frustrated when students from low-income communities were penalized because their parents had sold or bought drugs before their children were born.

"I had a mother come in who had gotten out of prison and said she was ready to turn her life around, be the kind of parent who volunteered," she said. "I had to turn her away."

The district maintains that even though these parents can't chaperone field trips or help out at school carnivals they still can be involved.

"You can attend conferences. You can make sure your child does their homework," Brimm said. "You do have the right as a parent to be engaged."

• • •

Lakewood Elementary no longer has a PTA. After Bain left, attendance at meetings dwindled. Curtis, whose wife was vice president, said that three or four people would show up. Then two or three, just the officers.

On a survey of teachers and staff at Lakewood, just 18 percent agreed that "Parent support for this school is strong."

Superintendent Mike Grego recently announced plans to improve Lakewood and four other St. Petersburg schools by sending social workers to homes and requiring parents to attend monthly meetings.

Billiris' opponents are split on whether, if elected, they would examine the volunteer policy. Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor, said he would want to make sure the appeals process was not too cumbersome. John Nygren, a retired math teacher, said he would not budge on it.

"If I found out that my kids were being chaperoned by a convicted felon, I would not feel comfortable with that," he said.

Curtis' opponent is incumbent Peggy O'Shea. She said she would want to talk with principals to see how often this came up. "Maybe we need a process to look at individual cases."

Bain's daughter is in high school now. She works in health care. She said she made mistakes and she paid for them, and now "I don't live in that part of my life anymore."

She remembers when she was the PTA president, and parents would come to her and say they were scared to come on campus because they had a felony. They did not bother filling out volunteer applications. They didn't want anyone passing judgment, for the things they'd done, for the time they'd served.

"I don't care about that," she told them. "Come here and be with your child."

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley and staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.