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    School background checks lag

    One mother accidentally discovers that background checks are not run on all Pinellas volunteers.

    By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 18, 2003

    Lynn Wells leaves little to chance when it comes to her kids' safety.

    They never play in the front yard without her watching from the front steps. On school days, she delivers them right to the classroom door at Pinellas Park Elementary, where her daughter is in third grade and her son is in kindergarten.

    "It's not our grandfathers' society anymore," said Wells, who accidentally discovered this week that the level of safety she expects when she drops off her kids is too expensive for Pinellas schools.

    The school district's system for conducting criminal background checks for volunteers, she found out, is filled with holes.

    Hundreds of people in the district's volunteer pool have committed crimes from child abuse to drug sales that would render them unfit to help out in schools. Yet the system that is supposed to weed them out has for years relied on random checks, which may or may not have spotted them.

    The district tightened its policy significantly at the beginning of this school year, deciding to conduct criminal background checks on everyone who applies to be a volunteer. But officials are playing catchup trying to implement it.

    Nearly 32,000 people have volunteered this school year, and one person is conducting the checks, said Doretha Jackson, supervisor of the district's Community Involvement Office. The office is giving priority to checking volunteers who accompany field trips, but volunteers who work in schools will be checked as time provides.

    The idea is that the danger of an unfit volunteer harming a student is greater on a field trip than in a school where teachers and staff can keep a close eye.

    Jackson indicated that checking all 31,827 volunteers plus those who sign up next year probably would take months. The staffer conducting the checks, she said, is a 10-month employee who works six hours a day and, because of cost-cutting, likely won't be available during the summer months when significant progress could be made on the list.

    "You can see where we have a monumental task," Jackson said.

    As she works through the list of volunteers, Jackson is finding an estimated 1 to 3 percent who are unfit to serve. Other larger Florida counties contacted Thursday report finding the same percentage, though, unlike Pinellas, their checks are current.

    Applying the percentage to all 31,827, the number works out to between 300 and 950 people registered as volunteers who may need to be purged from the system. Volunteers are disqualified under the same guidelines used for staff, which include "zero tolerance" for many offenses. The offenses seen so far among volunteers include drug sales, child abuse and child neglect, Jackson said.

    One was a child molestation conviction uncovered in October against a volunteer who was scheduled to accompany an elementary class on a field trip. The volunteer was removed before the trip, but the find was a wakeup call, Jackson said.

    It led to the decision to give priority to checking field trip volunteers.

    The reason for the backlog comes down to money. Besides staffing, money also limits the comprehensiveness of the checks. The district will screen all volunteers for crimes committed in Pinellas. However, in only a few cases will it spend the $15 for a statewide check through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The $52 check for crimes committed nationwide is a budget buster and pretty much out of the question.

    Multiply $52 by 31,827 and the total comes to $1.65-million. A statewide check for all volunteers would come to $477,405.

    The problem is illustrated in the case of Wells, who has helped out at Pinellas Park Elementary two hours a week since Jan. 9. As of Thursday, the district still had not conducted a criminal background check on her.

    "I assumed a certain level of safety," said Wells, who plans to complain at the next School Board meeting April 29.

    "As a parent, this is my worst nightmare -- that someone like this could have access to my children," Wells said. "I don't want them put at risk because of economic factors."

    She discovered the situation when told she could not attend a field trip. The school had not given the district her application, and she was never cleared to go.

    Wells resigned as a volunteer on Thursday, saying she could not support a system she plans to fight.

    "I agree with her; that's why we started this," Jackson said of the new system. "What we're doing now is miles and miles and miles down the road from where we were. We are miles ahead of many, many counties in this state."

    She added: "It's not perfect."

    In other Florida counties, systems for checking volunteers varied in some details but all had a common element: They wanted to do more but were hampered by a lack of funding.

    Hillsborough County has 35,000 volunteers, but the focus is on the estimated 5,000 who have one-on-one contact with students. That includes volunteers who mentor, tutor and go on field trips. For them, the district pays the $15 for a statewide criminal check and also consults several of the free Web sites offered by state agencies.

    When a criminal record is found, a decision is made based on the severity of the crime and how recent it was. "Just because you have a background does not mean you can't volunteer," said Donna Houchen, head of a non-profit agency that coordinates volunteers for Hillsborough schools. "I'm comfortable we're doing what's appropriate and prudent for the students without going overboard."

    Polk County checks all of its 22,000 volunteers, said Margaret Anne Wheeler, the district's volunteer coordinator. Wheeler said she's considering tighting the program further to conduct national checks on all volunteers who work one-on-one with students. Her reason: "We're a county that attracts people from other states."

    Mentors and tutors work in sight of teachers and school staff, she added. "But you just never know."

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