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Baldwin-Whitehall officials discuss clearance policy for school volunteers

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Anyone from a father wishing to drop his son off at a classroom door to a mother who volunteers on a regular basis at the neighborhood school soon could be subject to some type of screening process in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

The level of screening or clearances volunteers or visitors would need would depend on their level of interactions with students and time spent in the school, Superintendent Randal Lutz said.

All of the clearance requirements for volunteers are being outlined in a new policy being drafted by district administrators that was presented to school board members this month and could be brought for a first reading as early as next month.

“We want to keep the kids safe,” Lutz said.

District administrators began looking into creating a policy for volunteers this spring, Lutz said. The district has no policy for volunteers and relies on procedures that are in place to check if volunteers are OK to be around students.

“What we should have is a policy first,” Lutz said.

Those going on overnight trips or longstanding volunteers typically do need clearances on file, Lutz said. Procedures do not address situations involving people who come in and never are left alone with children, he said.

“We're looking at a policy that can really cover the range for a person that can maybe come in for a holiday party once a year to a person that is in a school several times a week,” Lutz said.

Volunteers in the district range from those in parent teacher groups to those coming in for crafts, Halloween events and to read to children, Lutz said.

Clearances that would be required for volunteers who spend alone time with children, in the policy, would be the same ones required of district employees, Lutz said. They include a criminal check by the state police, a child-abuse clearance and FBI fingerprint check, Lutz said. Those who would not be given a clearance likely would be individuals who committed “crimes against children,” Lutz said.

The cost would be about $53 per person, school board members estimated. Clearances would be needed once a year.

“For folks that we don't have any concerns over, we don't want to keep them out of the building,” Lutz said.

It's really just about keeping children safe, the superintendent reiterated.

Yet as a policy for volunteers is being drafted, Lutz said, he also wants to review visitor entries.

“Visitors have the ability to come in without almost any type of screening,” Lutz said. “It almost seemed contradictory that our threshold of checking was different for visitors than it would be for a volunteer who just wants to come in for the Halloween party or a couple of times a year.”

Baldwin-Whitehall administrators recently looked at a program that would scan visitor driver's licenses against public data upon entry to any school building, Lutz said. The district could pursue grant money for the installation.

“That way, we not only know who is there, we're able to track it and see who's in the building, how long they're in the building,” Lutz said “My goal — and it will be incorporated into the policy — is that all visitors, all volunteers at any level, will be screened. That will provide a check against all publicly available data.”

Yet, school board members at the Oct. 9 meeting still had questions about the proposed policy and plans for its implementation.

“So I come to the door and I've served three years for armed robbery. What happens? I've got a felony record — I don't, but if I did — and I come to the building, you're checking all of these records. So, yeah, you know that all of these people have felony records. What are you going to do about it?” board member Larry Pantuso asked. “Are we overstepping what we're allowed to do? I'm not sure it's any of your business to know and especially if you're not going to do anything with it.”

Parents have a right to see their children, and district officials cannot keep parents away from them, Lutz said.

Others said they would like to see the district pay for the clearance checks for volunteers.

“I think we should appreciate the fact that they're volunteering and not have them pay for the three clearances,” board member Martin Michael Schmotzer said. “I think it's well within our duty to pay.”

Board President Nancy Sciulli DiNardo said she agrees but only if there is a threshold set — that the district pays for volunteer clearances for those who spend a certain number of hours in a school or visit a certain number of times.

If school board members agree to pay for the clearances, Lutz said, he recommends they do it as a reimbursement to ensure that all of the volunteers carry through with their duties before the district finances their clearance.

“You have no idea who is going to follow through with what they say they're going to do,” Lutz said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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