Albany school board is considering fingerprinting school volunteers in the wake of two incidents in which long-time volunteers were dismissed for inappropriate and even criminal behavior.
“I know that even one brief encounter with an ‘inappropriate’ adult can change the course of a child’s life forever,” said Board Member Jamie Calloway. “We can pay lip service to protecting our students, or we can put ourselves on the line and really do it. “
Calloway believes that the district should fingerprint volunteers to make sure they have no history of doing harm to kids.
Currently school volunteers in Albany are neither asked to be registered, nor to go through a criminal background check. Only paid employees are required to be fingerprinted for such a check.
More than 100 volunteers, most of whom are parents of school children, are helping out at Albany schools on a regular basis each year, providing assistance to teachers in classrooms, coaching or driving for athletic teams, or working for libraries, while another several hundred provide occasional help, according to Superintendent William Wong.Wong’s office doesn’t keep records of the volunteers. “Eventually we will probably get everybody’s names,” said Wong.
A number of parents at a recent school board meeting called for a clear volunteer policy so that children are protected and parents feel comfortable volunteering.
“They are reacting to issues they should have known and should have guidelines for, ” said Chris Thai, a parent and President of Parent-Teachers Association of Ocean View Elementary.
Jon Etingoff, a volunteer wrestling coach at Albany High School for decades, was arrested on charges of sexual assault on minors in July. Court hearings on the case is going on and a mother appeared in court accused Etingoff of manipulating her son last week.
Another volunteer coach, Rick Holtzman, was dismissed from the track and cross country team of Albany Middle School this spring after school administrators decided that Holtzman used inappropriate language while corresponding in email with a student on his team and crossed the proper boundary between a coach and a student.
However, many parents disagree with the decision and criticize the district for not letting them know what its volunteer policy is.
“The policy is vague. I feel that the lack of a clear policy is what led to the really tragic situation of Rick’s dismissal as a track and cross country coach,” said Eileen Sheehan, a mother of two school children and a veteran school volunteer.
Sheehan joined 117 Albany parents and students in signing petition letters to school administrators asking the coach to be reinstated.
The current board policy on volunteers hasn’t been updated for nearly a decade. It largely contains vague principles, and was unknown to most volunteers.
Board members agreed on updating the policy and setting up clear guidelines for school volunteers. But their opinions differ on whether fingerprinting is a must.
While Board Member Calloway advocates it strongly, other members seem not so determined.
“It’s not clear to me that fingerprinting is the best way to achieve the goal, which is to ensure the safety of students,” said Board Member Charles Blanchard, who said he wanted to discuss the issue widely with volunteers and the public first.
“Fingerprinting might scare volunteers away, “said Kate MacManes, Vice President of Parent and Teacher Association of Ocean View Elementary.
She said that the measure would put extra burden on parents who devote their time and effort to the schools without being paid.
Cost is another concern. It takes about $70 to fingerprint one person. The total expenditure could be more than $ 10,000 if all volunteers go through the process.
“If the District wants to force it, it should pay for it, ” said MacManes.
The board directed the staff to draft a new policy and submit it for review at the next board meeting in mid October. The draft policy will be widely distributed among volunteers and the public for their opinions, and the board will then make a decision on whether and how to enforce fingerprinting.
A handbook with detailed instructions for school volunteers will also be prepared and distributed.