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Legal Brief                                      Page 9

Sizing Up Volunteer Fitness

BY MATT M. CARVER

PW-Carver 

 Matt Carver

Even with greater limits on who may set foot on school property, school districts dealing with tightened budgets have looked increasingly to volunteers for help with classroom activities and student support. Doing so does not come without risk.

Will those volunteers do more harm than good? Will the cost of mitigating risk of potential volunteer wrongdoing (e.g., background checks and exposure to civil lawsuits) outweigh the benefit of their help? These questions and more are fair to consider.

Imagine having to deal with the unpleasant aftermath of unwittingly permitting a parent with a felony sex offense against a minor to volunteer during a field trip. (Experience tells me some readers have faced this very scenario.) Even if the sex offender does no harm to students on the trip, administrators will likely spend countless hours answering to angry parents and responding to media inquiries.

Legislative restrictions and school district policies require administrators to strike a balance between mitigating risk and tapping into the potential value of having community volunteers in the classroom.

Know the Rules

First, seek assistance from your school attorney to determine whether legislative requirements will affect the use of volunteers. Some states require school districts to perform background checks on both school employees and prospective volunteers. Many states have further restrictions on whether sex offenders and individuals with other abusive offenses may be on school property, let alone serve as volunteers.

When considering statutory requirements and restrictions, keep in mind that the guidance may not always seem clear. For instance, the statute may restrict some, but not all, sex offenders from being on school property, depending on the age of the offender’s victim. Even if they don’t mandate certain action, statutes may give you grounds to deny individuals who wish to serve as volunteers in your schools.

When in doubt, school officials should consider the difference between what is permissible and what is advisable. State statutes may not outright restrict someone with a theft conviction from volunteering in your schools, but it would not be advisable to have that individual volunteer around the cash box at a book sale or concession stand. Having them help at a school’s field day may be a better option.

Background Checks

Some districts have policies that require background checks on volunteers, regardless of state law. If you do not have a policy in place, consider examining the background of certain volunteers who are more likely to have one-on-one interactions with students.

For instance, you might be more inclined to examine a volunteer who will be serving as a coach for the high school track team than a parent who is helping other adults decorate the gym for a school dance. Regardless of the policy, it’s important to emphasize consistent application throughout the school district.

Volunteers may provide excellent supplemental supervision of students, but use caution when relying on them to serve as sole supervisors. A volunteer in the elementary classroom may benefit the children, but the classroom teacher still should be the individual responsible for supervision.

If your school district plans to rely on volunteers to serve as the sole supervisors of students other than in an emergency, it is advisable to run the plan by your district’s attorney or insurance carrier for help in mitigating the risk.

With appropriate background checks and training, you may feel more comfortable permitting a volunteer to take additional responsibility regarding the supervision of students. For example, a parent who has received her substitute teaching license and is volunteering on her daughter’s field trip may be better prepared to supervise students than a parent with no education or supervision training. When in doubt, look to volunteers to supplement, not supplant, school employees when it comes to the supervision of students.

Ideally, the most appropriate use of volunteers in your schools will allow educators to focus on instruction.

Matt Carver is director of legal services for the School Administrators of Iowa in Clive, Iowa. E-mail: mcarver@sai-iowa.org. Twitter: @SAIlegalguy

 

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