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Fla. School Board Candidate: Allow Some Parents With Criminal Pasts to Volunteer

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A candidate vying for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board in Largo, Fla., this November wants principals to have more control over how the district's policy that bars most parents with criminal records from volunteering at schools is implemented. 

Beverley Billiris, a former local elementary school teacher, believes the district should allow school principals to consider permitting parents who have "turned their lives around" after committing nonviolent or nonsexual crimes to volunteer.

Billiris, whose story first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, told me schools in poor communities throughout Pinellas County would benefit from increased parent involvement. She said the district should consider parents' criminal records on a case-by-case basis. For example, the Times shares the story of a popular elementary school PTA president who was ousted after her criminal background check revealed that she had spent time in jail for writing bad checks. That school no longer has an active PTA chapter. 

Billiris, who taught 5th grade for more than a decade, said she had to turn away parents who had criminal records for writing bad checks. While she's not advocating that parents with felony convictions mentor or supervise children, she said that a parent with a lesser nonviolent and nonsexual conviction could work with his or her own child and could participate in activities when other adults are present at school.

Principals, Billiris argues, know their community and their parents. With district oversight, she said, principals should be able to weigh in about a parent's volunteer status. When parents are involved, it excites their children, she said, and that can be a "turning point."

"We want to get parents involved in low socioeconomic areas, but we put up all these barriers," Billiris said, adding that the district's volunteer appeals process can be demeaning to parents. "It's not a fair playing field."

However, district officials believe the volunteer policy keeps children's safety as the key priority. Under Pinellas County's current policy, anyone with a felony conviction for sexual crimes, lewd and lascivious crimes, or child abuse is not allowed to volunteer in the schools. (The Times emphasizes that no one is arguing for any flexibility on this part of the policy. Another school board candidate, Kent Curtis, who shared Billiris' position regarding the volunteer policy lost in the election earlier this week.) 

The Times also reports that parents convicted of selling drugs in the last 25 years and those parents who have committed any other felony in the last decade also are prohibited from volunteering. The district still can decide to ban criminal offenders from its volunteer programs even if the crime was committed beyond that time period. 

Valerie Brimm, the director of strategic partnerships for Pinellas schools, said in an interview that the district does try to find a way to engage parents in their children's education when their criminal record may prohibit them from participating in school-based activities. Brimm noted that nine of 14 appeals to the volunteer policy were granted last school year, which she said illustrates that the district is willing to accommodate parents. She added that her staff, which includes family and community liaisons at most of the district's 126 schools, works with parents to ensure that whether or not they are able to help at school, they can take steps to make a meaningful difference in their children's education. 

"People do change—that's why we work so closely with families," Brimm said, adding that she does not believe the policy has diminished its volunteer pool. (The district had more than 22,000 volunteers in 2013-2014.) "But we have to look out for the overall safety of our children and families."

Ruth Melton, director of governmental relations for the Florida School Boards Association, called school volunteers "gifts," but she added in an interview: "The bottom line with this type of discussion is that student safety comes first, and any district is going to lean toward protecting students in terms of policy over and above allowing someone on school grounds with a questionable background."

Melton explained that many Florida school districts fashioned their school volunteer policy after the Jessica Lunsford Act, a state law that requires background screenings for non-educational contractors and vendors with access to school campuses when students are present. (Nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped from her home, raped and murdered in 2005 by a previously convicted sexual predator who lived nearby. Another suspect of the crime was a subcontractor at her school.)

With parent involvement being touted as an essential ingredient to support student success, what's a community to do if some of its parents have criminal records? Or, as in a recent blog I wrote regarding North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, some parents are undocumented immigrants?

Finding flexibility in hard-and-fast rules about keeping children safe from harm at schools will take a lot of work and patience as more educators realize that parents—regardless of their background and past—can wield a positive influence in their children's lives.

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