Parents Fail Background Checks: Grownups Challenge Schools that Won't Let Them Volunteer

In this Aug. 31, 2010 photo, Jessica Gianfrocco poses for a photograph at the offices of the ACLU in Providence, R.I. Gianfrocco, a former heroin addict who was convicted of a felony before her daughter was born, was barred from volunteering at her daughter's school because of her past criminal record. Now she is suing the school district for the right to participate. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Parents Fail Background Checks Grownups Challenge Schools that Won't Let Them Volunteer
Jessica Gianfrocco (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

NEW YORK (CBS/AP) Wendy Cross wants to chaperone field trips and join other parents in supervising activities at her children's school in Grand Rapids, Mich. But because of some bad checks she wrote a decade ago, that's out of the question.

Cross, 36, is barred under a school district policy that requires would-be volunteers to undergo criminal background checks and disqualifies anyone with a felony record.

Now Cross is circulating a petition, signed so far by more than 300 other parents and community members, to lift the blanket ban.

"I'm a whole different person, how I used to be then to where I am now," says Cross, who has four children in the Grand Rapids public school system. "Children changed my life around."

A similar dispute is flaring in Rhode Island, where a woman sentenced to prison for heroin possession is suing the Cranston school system for the right to volunteer. Jessica Gianfrocco says she kicked her drug habit before her 6-year-old daughter was born and is taking classes to become a drug rehab counselor.

"People recover, we rehabilitate ourselves, we get better," says Gianfrocco, 32, who got clean after drug treatment and a 90-day prison sentence. "We have every right to do what a normal person would do."

Cranston School Committee chairman Michael Traficante says he is open to revisiting the policy, which was enacted last year and applies to a broad range of felonies. The Grand Rapids school system may do the same, says spokesman John Helmholdt, adding that the district is sensitive to cases like Cross' but wary of carving out too many exceptions.

"We want to engage parents, but student safety is our first and foremost priority," Helmholdt says. The Grand Rapids policy was implemented in 1995, and there have been regular challenges from parents with criminal records, though nothing as organized as the current petition effort, the spokesman says.

Criminal background checks have been done for decades on teachers and staff members across the country. But their use for school volunteers has risen dramatically in the past decade, in part because of child molestation fears and concerns about liability on the part of schools, says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. Background checks are also widely conducted outside of school on Little League and Boy Scout volunteers.

Her case reflects the gray areas school districts face as they increasingly use background checks to weed out volunteers with criminal pasts. Should parents with records - especially for offenses not connected to children - be automatically barred from volunteering?