Parents who want to volunteer are thwarted by their past misdeeds as schools take a hard line

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."

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? And how should schools reconcile their need to protect students with the public's interest in helping offenders rejoin society?

"If someone has committed a felony in their life, is that something that is a permanent mark in their lives that they're never able to overcome, or do we allow for redemption?" asks William Jeynes, an educational psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach.

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.

"It keeps children safe because we are now aware that the volunteers that are in a classroom or on a field trip or supervising a dance, and have direct access to our children, have not been convicted of offenses," says Andrea Iannazzi, a school committee member in Cranston.

It's impossible to say how many parents have been denied the right to volunteer in school or have challenged restrictive policies, since some may have quietly resolved their dispute with the district or were unwilling to pick a fight and broadcast their criminal past to the entire community.

"We very well may be entering a period of time in which the courts need to resolve this," Jeynes says.

Cross pleaded guilty in 2001 to a crime she says she committed when she was a young mother struggling for cash. She was placed on probation and ordered to pay more than $3,000 in restitution. She says she has already been punished for her offense and believes it has no bearing on her fitness as a mother.

Ken Trump, an Ohio-based school safety consultant, says schools shouldn't be expected to blindly give past offenders the benefit of the doubt and probably don't have the resources to consider volunteer applications on a case-by-case basis.

"School officials aren't really in the position to make that assessment and make that guess about whether that person is a high risk for recidivism," Trump says. "You certainly understand the feelings of the parents, but this is a very teachable moment for the long-term consequences of criminal involvement."

Still, background checks are hardly foolproof.

A search in one state may not reveal offenses committed in another, and there is no protection against a criminal who simply hasn't been caught yet. The checks may also prove burdensome in poorer communities where adults are more likely to have a record. And blanket bans on volunteers with criminal records inevitably encompass those with nonviolent or white-collar convictions, as well as those like Gianfrocco whose crimes occurred years ago.

"She's a very good mom," says Rebecca Forgetta, whose son attends school with Gianfrocco's daughter. "She's there before and after school every day. I don't see why her past should have to be held against her."

Gianfrocco hopes a judge declares the Cranston policy unconstitutional.

"I obviously do have a past that isn't the greatest, and I don't want to have my daughter go through that," she says. "I want to be involved. I want to be right there with her, everything she does."