New policy on school volunteer background checks stalled

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BROOKSVILLE – The school board looked to the state for guidance during a workshop this week on how to revise the district’s policy on criminal background checks for volunteers.

The problem is the state has only detailed strict background screening guidelines for employees and less-strict guidelines for contractors through the Jessica Lunsford Act.

“There is simply no clear statute that says what is the criteria for a volunteer,” said board attorney, Dennis Alfonso. “The law leaves it to you to draw the line.”

The district’s policy on criminal background checks for volunteers – parents and non-parents alike who participate in a range of activities from supervised class visits to unsupervised chaperones on overnight trips – is historically more stringent than that for contractors who might have little or no student contact.

The challenge Tuesday was to find a way to align the district’s policy with state law without barring suitable volunteers over minor criminal offenses, or allowing non-suitable volunteers to slip through the cracks.

Neither option appears to be without potential lawsuits, board members said, due in part to “loopholes” in the Jessica Lunsford Act, which was expediently drafted after the tragic murder of a Citrus County girl the legislation was named after.

For instance, volunteers in Florida school districts are only screened for criminal histories logged in the state of Florida, and not other states, which is done for certified instructors.

“Somebody could murder someone in Alabama and come here, and walk right on through,” said board member Cynthia Moore.

Safety and Security Coordinator Mario Littman said he has been working with an out-of-state contractor to ameliorate the problem, close loopholes in the Jessica Lunsford Act, and bring Hernando county Schools to a more uniform standard for volunteer criminal background screens.

“That’s why we’re getting rid of the district standard and going towards state standard,” he said. “Our job isn’t to bar people; our job is to get them through.”

Hernando County was among the districts to first implement criminal background checks as required by the Jessica Lunsford Act through the use of their own fingerprinting system, Littman said.

The school district is the largest employer in the county, and the costs of running the extensive background checks required by law for the district’s 1,668 teachers with direct, daily, unsupervised student contact is worth it, board members said Tuesday.

But there were questions of practicability for running similarly extensive checks for each of the district’s volunteers, which nearly total the student population at 22,000, and whether the district or volunteer would front that bill.

It would cost seven times what is spent running criminal background checks for instructional staff.

Another complication with aligning the district’s policy to the baseline requirements in the Jessica Lunsford Act, is a policy that is too lenient might let through a volunteer convicted of a serious felony that was reduced to misdemeanor status in the court system.

“You have people you hold to a higher standard who would have unsupervised contact with children, and you’re holding them to the lowest standard,” Alfonso said.

The same goes for aligning district policy for volunteers and contractors to the state’s guidelines for teachers. A policy that is too stringent would prevent contractors with a statewide badge from working with all Florida school districts as permitted by the state, and could leave the district susceptible to lawsuits.

Jeffrey Lewis, a coach at Central High School for three years, is an example of that.

Lewis said at Tuesday’s meeting that he was convicted of a misdemeanor while working in college. The charge was later sealed, he said, and it never appeared in background checks, not even with the military, until he applied as a coach at Nature Coast High.

“I’m one of those that falls under that, tries to do everything right, and follows the statutes,” Lewis said. “Right now, as it stands, I can volunteer and coach in any district in the state but Hernando County.”

Alfonso proposed drafting language that would embody both state laws for teachers and contractors, noting this may give the district discretion when approving or denying volunteers, and it could consider gray areas on a case-by-case basis.

Board member Matt Foreman said that scenario might also pose the potential for lawsuits if there is perceived preferential treatment based on an applicant’s religion, skin color, or sex.

And if a volunteer with a criminal record is approved outside of a set policy, and commits a crime during unsupervised contact with students, the district could be liable, Foreman said.

In light of additional revisions needed, another copy of the draft will be presented again to the board in late February, and considered at that time for potential approval.

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