By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
A new state law regarding volunteers in schools has left local school administrators and parents groups scratching their heads over its implementation.
Senate Bill 287, which was passed with a near unanimous vote in the 2017 legislature, is a sweeping anti-bullying law. But embedded in the bill is also a requirement that all school volunteers undergo a background check prior to being allowed to serve in the schools.
The law was effective on July 1 this year. But Clark County School District held off on full implementaton until November 1. It has recently been made clear to school administrators that they must now abide by the law.
SB 287 specifies that anyone who has “regular” or “unsupervised” contact with kids must complete the background check to volunteer. CCSD policy has interpreted “regular” contact to mean anyone who volunteers more than four times per month or 36 times per school year. Volunteers with any unsupervised contact with children must have the background checks, no matter how frequent the contact is.
Volunteers are required to complete a four step process to receive the background check. First they must complete an online volunteer application. Then they must travel to Las Vegas and go through fingerprinting by the CCSD Police Department, which has a cost of $60 to the volunteer. Next, the resulting background check is reviewed and approved by CCSD human resources staff. A special badge is then issued to the volunteers which allows them access into the school. Finally, they must complete a brief orientation about being a “mandatory reporter.” That means that they have an obligation, under the law, to report any instances of child abuse they witness to proper authorities.
These requirements extend to anyone volunteering at all on-campus and off-campus school activities which can include helping with school events and assemblies, serving concessions at athletics, parent chaperones on field trips and mentoring in extracurricular clubs and activities and more.
Local school administrators say that the law could have a major impact on their school operations.
Moapa Valley schools are known for a high volume of parent and community volunteers. Grant Bowler Elementary principal Shawna Jessen said that it is not uncommon for her school to have up to 70 volunteers come through its doors per day.
“We have a lot of intervention going on to help kids who are struggling,” Jessen said. “We also have a lot of parents who come in to help keep things moving in the lunchroom each day and a lot of moms that come to help in their kids’ classrooms. That is a lot of help we get from volunteers!”
Hal Mortensen, who is currently serving as principal of both Ute Perkins Elementary and Moapa Valley High School, agreed that parent volunteers were integral to the success of the schools.
“At Perkins we have a large number of PTO volunteers that are very diligent,” Mortensen said. “This could affect that. And we still haven’t figured out all of the effects at the high school; whether the Booster Club volunteers are going to have to be fingerprinted or not. It will be a pretty steep learning curve before we get all the parents in to be fingerprinted.”
Both administrators admit that the bill feels somewhat overwhelming in its implementation.
“It brings up unique problems like: How do I track where each person is on their four times per month limit?” Jessen said. “We are putting in a system to track that and we will do our best. But it puts a heavy burden on our Office Aid.”
Jessen also expressed the difficulty she faces of having to turn long-time faithful volunteers away because they haven’t completed their paperwork.
“What about those community volunteers, older retired people for example, who come in diligently almost every day and have done for years?” Jessen said. “They love to read with the kids and they have almost become like adopted grandparents to them. How do I tell them that they just can’t come in anymore unless they drive all the way to Las Vegas to get fingerprinted? How do I say you can’t come back because you’ve exceeded your four times per month just this week? It is just hard to get my head around that.”
The Bowler Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) held a meeting last week where they discussed the new requirements. PTO President Brandi Harter said that most parents were not happy about it. But many of the more involved parents are willing to move forward, she said.
“It is what it is,” Harter said. “It is the law and we can’t change it right now. The fact is that we are part of Las Vegas in a big urban school district. I suppose that they are glad for it there. Out here it is not really necessary. But we don’t really have the choice now. So it is just go and get it done for our kids; despite the inconvenience.”
Harter said that the PTO is talking to school district officials trying to bring CCSD staff out to the Moapa Valley from Las Vegas to do a day of fingerprinting for local parents in the hopes of alleviating some of that inconvenience.
But for some parents there is more to it than the inconvenience, Harter said. Many parents who have already spent so much time and efforts volunteering in the schools consider the new background check requirement to be nothing short of an insult, she said.
“Quite a few parents say that they just won’t come anymore if they have to do all of that,” Harter said. “So I worry that this will bring a drop in volunteers at the school.”
Jessen has that same fear.
“You can put these kind of requirements in place in the name of safety for the kids and we can do that,” Jessen said. “But there are unintended consequences to that kind of legislation. The loss of parent volunteers may impact academic performance at the school. That is how important it is to us. So hopefully the safety factor gained will be worth the cost of possibly losing our helpers.”