Board talks stiffening checks on volunteers

Lebanon School Board members asked staff to come back with more information about how the district vetts volunteers as they decide how to update policy on background checks. 

During its regular meeting Thursday evening, Sept. 20, the board held the first reading of a policy update that would require the district to fingerprint and conduct a nationwide background check on certain volunteers. 

Right now, the district does not require fingerprinting or nationwide background checks for volunteers. The district’s policy currently requires the district to conduct Oregon criminal records checks. 

“We should fingerprint volunteers that have direct unsupervised contact with students,” said Jennifer Meckley, director of human resources and community relations. “And we need to decide who are those people. Is that every volunteer that we have, which is hundreds.”

The Oregon School Boards Association’s sample policy suggested that it include volunteers like coaches, overnight chaperones, drivers transporting students other than their own, and those who who have direct unsupervised contact with students.

Volunteers usually are not alone with students, Meckley said. “They’re usually in a classroom stuffing Tuesday folders or maybe on a field trip; they’re with other people around.”

The cost of fingerprinting is $75.25 per person for staff members, with the cost of fingerprinting coming out of their first paychecks, Meckley said. The district pays $4.25 of the cost. Typically, the district will extend a background check farther when the state level background check shows a volunteer has come from out of state.  

“I would be in the camp of fingerprint everybody,” said Richard Borden, board member. “

“By contact level, that’s the key thing,” said Michael Martin, board member. “If they’re volunteering in the classroom, putting stars on a Christmas tree or something and everybody’s around it.”

“So what happens if they’re a registered sex offender, they slip through the cracks?” Borden asked. 

“They don’t because they do get background checked,” Meckley said. 

“But not nationally,” Borden said. “We just run the risk of endangering our kids if we don’t fingerprint everybody because the moment it happens, we’re all going to be sitting here looking at each other saying, ‘We woulda, shoulda, coulda.’ The cost is insignificant. I don’t think we should bear that personally. I think the volunteer should.”

“We run the risk of scaring off our a lot of volunteers if we do that,” Meckley said. “I don’t disagree that we want to be as safe as we can, but I also want to be practical in the sense that if somebody’s going on a field trip and they’re around a hundred other people and not going to be alone with kids.”

Borden responded: “I’ve seen too many situations where someone’s volunteered to do something and all of the sudden they’re saying, ‘Hey, where’s Bob and Johnny?’ and everybody goes, I’ don’t know’ – and then you’ve got a problem.”

“Why don’t we look at the list at the next board meeting?” Martin said, echoeing a suggestion made earlier by Nick Brooks, board member, to allow the board to look at the volunteers by location.

Chairman Tom Oliver suggested that Meckley come up with categories and recommendations for the board to consider. 

Brooks said he would like to know how many volunteers the district has. 

Meckley responded that it’s in the hundreds, and she could bring a specific number back to the board next month.

“Anybody who comes into the classroom and reads or helps or stuffs folders or goes on a field trip once a year, they’re a volunteer,” Oliver said. 

“You’re a volunteer,” Meckley told him. 

Oliver asked, “If you meet your kid’s class at the Oregon Garden for their field trip and you’re there with the whole class, is that the best use of the money to go through and fingerprint that person?” 

“Is there a real risk there that we’re mitigating? I think there’s certainly a balance.”

“For that one child, that one parent, it is,” Borden responded. “There’s no recovery from it.”

“That raises the question,” Oliver said. “How effective is that preemptive fingerprinting going to be?” 

“Well, we require it for the staff, so why would we not require it for the volunteers?” Borden asked. 

Tammy Schilling, board member, said there’s a cost and benefit with a risk. 

“If you’re wrong one time, how is that worthwhile to you?” she said. “I don’t want to look a family in the eye and say, ‘We should’ve, we could’ve, and we decided not to.’ 

“What I really don’t want to say is ‘We decided not to because of cost.’”

“Personally if there’s 300, 80 bucks, it’s $24,000, we pay for it,” Brooks said. “I don’t like the idea of having anybody pay for it. My thought is what that will it do to our volunteers. I want to understand that. 

“If all of the sudden we go from 300 volunteers to 100 volunteers. I’ve been in the classrooms with those teachers in the kindergarten class, and if they don’t have two or three volunteers, it’s a tough darn day.”

Borden continued to advise caution. 

“I’ve been on the other end of it, and it’s the worst thing people can experience,” he said. “It’s not pleasant. It’s not fun sitting down with the family. I’m not going to sit here and say that, ‘Yeah, we’re going to allow the opportunity for that to happen.’ If there’s a way to make it safer, we’ve got to do it.”

That comes down to who’s unsupervised, Schilling said. 

“There’s a category here that kind of extremely lowers your risk.”

That’s why the OSBA specifies the unsupervised contact, Meckley said, “but I understand what you’re saying. How do you control it?”

“Sexual predators, I’ve seen them be right up front, and I’ve seen them be last in the building,” Borden said. 

“Once Pandora’s Box is open there, we run the risk at whatever point they volunteer. They’re a predator. They could nurture that process for years. We’ve got to do our due diligence now that the opportunity is in front of us.”

Sarah McCraw, who said she is a past 16-year volunteer at Riverview Elementary School, said if she had been fingerprinted while she was volunteering, “I probably would’ve quit.” 

 “It feels like a betrayal of trust,” she told the board. “I built up the trust with the teachers. If the board felt like they couldn’t trust me after I’d been there as long as I had with just the background check, I don’t feel like I could’ve continued.”

Oliver suggested that Meckley look at policies in neighboring school districts. 

Based on the board’s discussion and questions, Meckley said she will look into options and gather additional information, including who makes decisions to approve backgrounds, what disqualifies a volunteer, how many volunteers are denied on background checks and the logistics volunteers may encounter during the process as well as alternatives to that process. 

In other business, the board:

n Voted to create an ad hoc committee to begin looking at property and planning for a new building to house the district’s alternative education program. 

n Heard a report by Oliver that three firms are preparing proposals to serve as consultant in the search for a new superintendent. The board will select the consultant at its October meeting. 

n Approved a rental fee of $50 per year for district-owned instruments. For students eligible for free and reduced lunch, the fee is $25. If a student cannot afford the fee, the student will be able to substitute work in lieu of the fee.

The fee is intended to help pay for maintenance of the instruments.

n Held the first reading of a new policy governing the use of unmanned aircraft systems, drones. 

n Held the second reading of several policy updates and approved them. The policies covered sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, students with disabilities, special education, expanded options, commercial advertising, public solicitation in district facilities and admission of resident students.