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Reese parents want tougher screening for school volunteers

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Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002 10:00 pm

A group of Reese Elementary School parents has asked Lodi Unified School District officials to require all adult volunteers be fingerprinted in order to insure student safety.

The district adopted a fingerprinting policy in June, requiring certain adults who work closely with children to undergo background checks.

Parents and community helpers who volunteer once a week in the classroom are exempted from the screening.

Reese parent Michelle Hughes hopes to close what she considers the policy's loophole which could allow a sex offender to still work with children.

"They came down with a policy, but it doesn't cover the board 100 percent," said Hughes, a mother of two children who's spearheading the effort.

The district's fingerprinting policy is an open invitation to sex offenders looking to skirt the requirements, she said.

Under the current policy, volunteers who work directly with students two or more days a week, work alone with children or participate on overnight field trips are required to be fingerprinted.

Almost 60 of the 500 volunteers expected to be screened have undergone the background checks so far, said Len Casanega, assistant superintendent of personnel.

The district researched other district policies and talked with law enforcement in developing the fingerprinting policy, he said.

The policy was developed to protect children from abuse by fingerprinting volunteers who are alone with students and who frequently spend time with children, Casanega said.

Student safety, costs and retaining volunteers were discussed in drafting the policy. "We tried to strike a middle ground," he said.

The new policy has received mixed reaction from parents and classroom helpers - some calling for a tighter policy while others questioning the purpose for the requirement, Casanega said.

Hughes, who recently took her concerns to the school board, said it doesn't take long for children to develop trust with the adult volunteers, which is why the tighter policy is needed.

She illustrates her point by telling about a girl who actively seeks her out on campus to give her a hug.

"I worked only one day a week last year," she said.

Given the recent child abductions and killings, schools should be one of the safest places for children, Hughes said. Lodi Unified officials plan to revisit the policy mid-school year and see whether changes need to be made, Casanega said.

Hughes and other parents believe the district could do more, including issuing volunteer photo badges.

Hughes received a photo badge after undergoing a similar background check as a volunteer coach for the Lodi Parks and Recreation Department.

The city began fingerprinting all volunteers and city employees last August. More than 1,000 people have been screened since starting the new requirement, though costs were not available.

"If the Parks and Rec can do it, why can't Lodi Unified?" Hughes asked.

Costs could hamper broadening the policy, district officials said.

The fingerprinting policy is estimated to cost about $21,000 yearly or $42 per volunteer, Casanega said.

The district is getting its own Livescan system to fingerprint volunteers, which would slightly reduce the costs, Casanega said.

It also is looking to train an employee on making identification badges, he said.

Trustee Harvey Robins, who cast the lone vote against the fingerprinting policy, agreed all volunteers working with children should be screened.

"It didn't make sense to me to not include volunteers who have contact with children once a week," he said.

Robins said the policy was long overdue and was pleased several other trustees agreed with Hughes' concerns.

"Perhaps hearing it from a parent and not a board member makes a difference," he said.

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