1. Opinion

Editorial: Schools' rules on volunteers need flexibility

Published Aug. 29, 2014

Parental involvement is an important factor in student success. But the Pinellas County School District's policy that bans parents with minor or years-old criminal convictions from volunteering at schools is too strict and drives away too many families who want to be more involved in their children's education. The School Board should revisit its policy and clear the way for more parents who have turned their lives around to serve as positive influences for their children.

The issue of background checks for parent volunteers surfaced during the recent campaigns for Pinellas County School Board. At least two candidates argued that the district's current policy displays an unfair bias against parents with a criminal past and deprives schools of volunteers they desperately need. There is broad support for the district's policy of banning people convicted of sex crimes and felony child abuse. But the district also bars volunteers who have been convicted of misdemeanors or of felony theft or economic crimes within the last five years. It also bans people convicted of selling drugs within the last 25 years or who have had other felony convictions within the last 10 years. Those rules are too arbitrary, and there should be more flexibility and discretion in the policy.

The Tampa Bay Times' Lisa Gartner reported that Lakewood Elementary lost its parent-teacher organization president during the 2008-09 school year after school officials learned she had a criminal conviction. Before then, Simona Bain had grown attendance at PTO meetings to 50 to 60 parents. But Bain had previously spent less than a year in prison for writing bad checks. She resigned from her post, a blow to the community and the school, which no longer has a parent-teacher organization. Those are the sorts of situations a revised policy should address.

Pinellas County's volunteer policy is not entirely unreasonable. But the nature of blanket policies is that someone will be unreasonably prevented from volunteering even though he or she is no threat to the students or the school. In Hillsborough County, the school district has a commonsense approach that bans volunteers convicted of sex crimes but leaves other decisions about volunteers' backgrounds to principals, who make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Pinellas schools, which had 16,000 active volunteers last school year, has an appeals process for rejected volunteers and volunteer options in place for parents without spotless records. People convicted of DUI, for example, can volunteer but are not allowed to drive students. But the district needs to do a better job of encouraging parents to volunteer and submit applications, and it needs a more flexible policy regarding criminal convictions. When parents are unreasonably shut out, everyone loses.