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Organizing background checks takes schools time

| Wednesday, July 29, 2015, 2:18 p.m.
Northern Regional Police Sgt. Jeff Jones, left, and Det. Jeff Hoffman demonstrate the hover mode of the department's new DJI Phantom Professional quadcopter, camera-equipped drone.
Northern Regional Police Sgt. Jeff Jones, left, and Det. Jeff Hoffman demonstrate the hover mode of the department's new DJI Phantom Professional quadcopter, camera-equipped drone.

Local school districts continue to wade through the changes made last year to the state's Child Protective Services law that requires all volunteers to get background checks and renew the checks every five years.

While Hampton Township, Shaler Area and Pine-Richland school districts had prior policies to require background checks of many volunteers, school officials say the changes have been time-consuming and confusing for schools and volunteers alike.

“In all honesty, this goes across the board to professional staff, it's a great idea but conceptually it's very hard to administer,” said Shaler Area director of human resources Gary Mignogna.

“The administrative effort that's required of this is extensive…. It's absolutely put a strain on our office.”

Among the changes made in late 2014 to the state Child Protect Services law, which governs how the state responds to child abuse, school volunteers who have direct contact with children or who are responsible for the child's welfare are required to get a background check to start or continue volunteering.

Volunteers must get a criminal history report from the Pennsylvania State Police, child abuse history certification from the Department of Human Services and FBI criminal background check.

The changes also required all school employees, who previously only had to get clearances once, to renew their clearances every five years. Employees have until the end of 2015 to get their clearances completed, while volunteers have until July 1, 2016.

The criminal history and child abuse history certifications can be done online, but the FBI criminal background check requires applicants to visit a fingerprinting station. There are 11 fingerprinting locations in Allegheny County, but many of the North Hills applicants are sent to the UPS Store on Route 8 in Richland.

Lisa Bogart, assistant manager at the UPS Store, said before the law changed they would see about 30 to 40 applicants for fingerprinting each day.

Now they are doing between 80 and 90 applicants a day, she said.

Employees help applicants complete the fingerprinting, but Bogart said there's a constant flow of people.

“We're always doing them,” Bogart said. “Normally we have a line of like five to seven people as soon as fingerprints start and it goes throughout the day.”

To answer concerns that the cost of clearances could be prohibitive, Gov. Tom Wolf said in June that the fees for child abuse clearances and criminal background checks would be waived for volunteers and reduced from $10 to $8 for all other applicants beginning July 25.

Volunteers who have been a resident of Pennsylvania for the past 10 years are exempt from getting FBI fingerprinting, which costs $27.

Pine-Richland adopted a policy in 2000, revised in 2008, to require background checks for volunteer coaches and independent volunteers, like tutors, field trip chaperones, musical volunteers and band instructors.

Pine-Richland, Hampton Township and Shaler Area schools all included language in their volunteer policies to account for infrequent visitors to the school who don't have direct, unsupervised contact with children, like parents who help set-up elementary holiday parties.

This group of volunteers does not have to get the clearances.

Owen Kenney, director of human resources for Pine-Richland, said he thinks the impact of the changes will be minimal for volunteers.

“I think our parents are dedicated to the students and understand this is something the district is not imposing upon them, it's the state,” Kenney said.

Hampton Township and Shaler Area created policies in 2012 to require background checks for some volunteer groups.

Hampton Township will vote on the revised policy in August, which firmed up the language for “incidental visitors” who are infrequent visitors to classrooms, Superintendent John Hoover said.

“We didn't have any push back or major concern from parents three years ago and at this point, we still don't have major concerns,” Hoover said. “And hopefully with good communication we can avoid any problems,” he added, noting that he has kept parent groups informed of the ongoing changes.

Shaler Area revised its policy in February to include chaperones in the group that must get background checks, Mignogna said.

Since then there has been some push back from parents, he said, but it's been minimal.

However, the time and cost involved with getting the clearances might still deter some parents from volunteering, he said. School districts are just beginning to see the effects of the law.

“I would imagine there are folks out there, and maybe it's appropriately deferred people, who shouldn't volunteer and won't apply, but there may be some folks who don't want to go through the process,” Mignogna said. “We've heard about it at the District Parent Council meetings, but the law is the law and there's very little we can do.”

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or rfarkas@tribweb.com.

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