New state regulations requiring volunteers in both public and private schools to get criminal and child abuse background clearances could lead to a drop off in volunteers, mostly due to the cost.
Under amendments to the state Child Protective Services law, all teachers, staff, administrators, contractors and volunteers who come into contact with students must obtain criminal background check and child abuse clearances from the FBI, Pennsylvania State Police and Department of Human Services every 36 months, effective Dec. 31, 2014.
The new rules are based on recommendations from a Task Force on Child Protection established by the state Legislature after the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
Clearances previously obtained by current employees are valid for three years from their most recent certification. Employees who have not obtained clearances or have clearances more than three years old have until Dec. 31, 2015.
Criminal background checks have been required by law of teachers and staff for a number of years, but anyone employed prior to passage of those laws was grandfathered in, Upper Dublin School District Solicitor Ken Roos said. “Everybody has to have them now,” he said.
The new rules do not apply to school board members, but “some are getting them anyway,” he said, noting board President Art Levinowitz had done so.
Previously, school district employees only had to obtain the clearances once, Roos said. One of the main changes in the law is that “everybody has to [obtain the clearances] ever 36 months.”
The new rules extend to volunteers, requiring those who have direct contact with children to obtain the criminal FBI and state police clearances as well as a child abuse history clearance every three years. Those who have lived in Pennsylvania for 10 years will not require the FBI clearance. The deadline is July 1.
Fees, to be paid by the volunteers, are: $10 child abuse history, $10 state police criminal background check; and $30 for the FBI criminal background check, which includes fingerprinting.
“I think it’s a necessary evil,” said Thomas Fitzwater Elementary School Co-president Kristen Sewards. “If my kid was in a classroom I’d want to know if there was a registered sex offender [there].” On the other hand, “I think it will affect our numbers. In our school it will be difficult because of the cost … not because they don’t want to.”
The Upper Dublin School Board adopted new policies and regulations Feb. 9 to comply with the background clearance requirements “for all classes” of administrative, professional and classified employees, as well as regulations requiring an employee to notify the district if he or she has been arrested and charged with any “serious criminal conduct.”
Among major changes to the law, the definition of child abuse and list of mandated reporters has been expanded and the basis for reporting suspected abuse broadened, Roos said.
A policy obligating district employees to report child/student abuse was amended to include independent contractors and school volunteers. Previously, employees were required to self-report being convicted of a crime. Under the new rules, the requirement has been expanded from crimes to a child abuse determination, Roos said.
The Department of Human Services “makes the determination” as to whether the child abuse was “founded or indicated,” he said.
The rules for volunteers apply to those who have direct contact with children during a school-sponsored activity, Roos said. Volunteers at a non-district activity, such as a PTA-sponsored afterschool activity do not need the clearances.
Those visiting a classroom but not assisting in parties, parades, American Education Week, Veterans’ Day, mystery reading and other activities are considered visitors, not volunteers, according to data provided.
Roos described the new regulations for volunteers as “having a really big net to catch probably a very few fish.”
The district human resources office will oversee the clearance regulations and consult with building administrators in determining who is a Tier I or Tier II volunteer, district Human Resources Director Tom Sigafoos said.
Tier I volunteers are those in contact with children at any school-sponsored program or activity, such as youth, recreational, sports or athletic, outreach and enrichment programs, and troops, clubs or similar organizations. Examples include field trip chaperones, classroom and Kid Writing volunteers.
A Tier II volunteer — someone who helps decorate a classroom or prepare projects or crafts for teachers — must submit a volunteer application but will not need clearances.
“We’ve started to collect a list of volunteers from the principals,” Sigafoos said at the Feb. 9 meeting. New volunteers “will require background checks immediately. Those who have been volunteers for a while have until July.”
Human resources is developing a website for volunteers to go to and once it has the list from the building principals will be able to get in touch with volunteers individually, he said.