Schools, after-school programs, summer camps, sunday schools, daycares and other agencies that supervise children are responsible for student safety of children in their care. Failing to apply the same attention to ensuring that non-licensed individuals, such as volunteers, meet the same standards as teachers and other paid staff can place students — and ultimately a school, district, or other agency — at risk. When the history of a volunteer or chaperone on an overnight school trip includes something that would raise a red flag but the school is unaware of it, school officials are not able to make an informed decision about whether or not that person should be allowed to interact with children.
The risks of not adequately screening individuals who have direct contact with children have been apparent in cases for which Education Management Consulting, LLC, has been engaged to review and provide expert witness services. Many such cases involve harm, injury, negligent supervision and even sexual abuse of children by volunteers. At times, our reviews of school policies, personnel records, and testimony have determined that failure to conduct a reasonably appropriate background check and screening was the proximate cause of harm to children.
In one such case, the school argued that there was no state requirement for a district to apply the same level of scrutiny to volunteers as when it hires teachers. The school had conducted a standard criminal background check, but unlike the standard it applied to teachers, the school did not conduct interviews with supervisors at past volunteer posts. The volunteer was allowed to participate in a classroom on a regular basis. Over time, he developed an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of the students. A case review discovered that he had served as a volunteer in another school district, where he was told not to come back because the administration was uncomfortable about his interactions with students. The volunteer had listed the prior school and his supervisor on his volunteer application, but the new school did not contact the prior school for a reference. Had the school done so, it likely would not have compromised their student safety and would have heard about the previous school’s concerns and rejected his volunteer application.
State Requirements for Volunteer Screenings and Background Checks
Background checks and screenings of teachers are required in every state, and school districts have developed procedures to provide reasonable assurance that only teachers of high moral quality come in contact with children. When a background check reveals that a candidate was convicted of domestic violence or another crime against a person, the school may be prohibited from hiring that person.
Conducting background checks on prospective teachers as a student safety measure has been established in the field of education administration for decades. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that states began to pass laws addressing background checks on volunteers, and to this day, a patchwork of legal requirements exists. New Mexico, for instance, mandates background checks on all school volunteers, while New Jersey “allows” but does not require boards of education to conduct criminal record checks on volunteers. Volunteers in Florida schools are screened only for criminal histories logged in the state of Florida but not in other states. When state law is less strict for volunteers than it is for teachers, schools are free to adopt their own policies that are more stringent.
National guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses encourage schools to conduct criminal background checks on all volunteers. To help schools implement this guideline, Texas Education Code allows a school district to obtain from any law enforcement or criminal justice agency all criminal records that relate to a person who serves as or has applied to be a school volunteer. In Pennsylvania, schools must check volunteer applicants’ backgrounds through the state Department of Human Services and Pennsylvania State Police, and are also required to obtain a federal criminal history. Seattle Public Schools screen all volunteers who work directly with students through the Washington Access to Criminal History background check system — the same process used for teachers and other licensed staff — and conducts reference checks. Volunteers are allowed to begin service before the screening process is completed, provided there is proper supervision. The volunteer’s continued involvement with the school depends on the results of the check.
Student Safety in Specialized Programs and Placements
While schools have a responsibility to protect student safety on campus, on school-sponsored trips, and at school activities, are they also responsible for the protection of students who attend programs at a school that is not under its direct control, such as a special education or vocational school? Should the school that assigns students to such programs assure that the employees and volunteers at the receiving school meet certain screening standards? If a school allows a private after-school program to operate in its gym, should it assure that volunteers in that program meet the same standard as if they volunteered in the school?
These are among the many questions in cases for which we have been engaged. Every case is uniquely different, and an analysis leading to an expert opinion can be very complex. In each case, however, the ultimate standard of professional care is that the school, through its administration, has a responsibility to act appropriately and reasonably to protect the health, safety, and well-being of its children. It is reasonable for the home school to expect that an external program or service will effectively screen employees and volunteers who come in contact with its students.
Examining one of our cases involving a child with a disability will help to illustrate. A high school student was placed in a class for students with cognitive and physical disabilities. As she got older, it was necessary for the school to deliver vocational training services through a separate agency. School personnel, the student’s parents, and others involved in this decision understood that the student demonstrated inappropriate, sexually oriented behavior toward peers and needed careful supervision wherever she was educated. This also required that those working with her at the school, including teachers and volunteers, were appropriately screened. Knowing of her propensity for this type of behavior should have caused her school to consider whether those she would come in contact with at the new placement would allow or encourage this behavior. Shortly after the student was placed at this program, and in my opinion because she was not adequately supervised, an adult volunteer engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with her. As part of the overall review of the case, the personnel file of the volunteer was examined and it revealed that he was not screened by the vocational program administration — in my opinion, a failure of the home school to meet the professional standard of care. Teachers at the program needed to be licensed, which required a criminal background check. Volunteers, however, were allowed to work in the program without a background check. It would have been reasonable for the school sending its student to the vocational program to inquire about the program’s policy regarding background checks for volunteers and then determine whether the student would reasonably be protected from harm.
Student Safety and Standard of Professional Care
When reviewing cases similar to those discussed above, we consider state law and school district policy as the standard, and then consider the overall responsibility of a school to protect its students. This is the overriding standard of professional care. If an adult staff member or volunteer who was not adequately screened should sexually assault a student, then an argument may be made that the proximate cause of the child’s injury was failure on the part of the school to fully investigate the person’s background in order to reasonably assure the protection of students. On the other hand, if the school followed state law and its own policy, applying the same standard to approving volunteers as it did for teachers and other staff, and yet an inappropriate relationship developed because of other circumstances, then it can be argued that the screening process was appropriate.
Does everyone in a school or other agency who has contact with children have to be screened? And what is an appropriate and reasonable level of screening? The distinction that should be made is whether a person is a visitor to a program or a volunteer who has a defined regular role in it. Parents have the right to visit their child’s school and to observe their child in class. They can have lunch with their child and attend classroom and school events. In this context, the parent is a visitor, and complete background checks are not required. When a parent or other person takes on a regular role in the classroom or supervises on an overnight class trip, more scrutiny is required. Providing assistance in these ways shifts the person’s classification from visitor to volunteer. If the person is in the school on a regular basis and others expect to see the person frequently, then he or she is considered a volunteer, and the school must make an informed determination as to whether or not to allow the person to interact with students.
Schools are held to strict requirements when hiring licensed school personnel. Applying the same standard to the screening of volunteers is one way to protect children from harm and keep them safe.