Background check plan sparks debate

By John L. Braese
The Enterprise
VALE – The three largest school districts in the county apparently disagree over the definition of the word “volunteer” for purposes of entry into a school.
While Ontario and Nyssa are conducting backgrounds checks for persons wanting to volunteer at schools, the Vale’s superintendent, Scott Linenberger, has decided to require background checks for any person entering a school beyond the office. This includes parents.
The change in protocol came after the passage of House Bill 2992, which takes effect January.
The new law requires school districts “to adopt and implement policy that requires volunteers to undergo background check if district or school allows volunteers to have direct, unsupervised contact with school children.”
The check looks at the criminal background of the applicant. Those filling out the request are asked for name, Social Security number and driver’s license number. There are then five questions about past criminal convictions or pending criminal cases.
Tricia Yates of the the state Education Department said the law is going through the agency’s rulemaking process, but the bill does not define the term volunteer.
According to Yates, “the department relies on the determination of the school district as to whether someone is a volunteer who meets the requirements of the bill. If the district identifies an individual as a volunteer who has direct, unsupervised contact with school children and requests a background check from the department, the department will perform the background check.”
Alex Pulaski, spokesman for the Oregon School Board Association, refused to comment.
“We represent the school boards and will not discuss this,” said Pulaski.
Vale has been conducting background checks on volunteers since 1997. Completed applications are forwarded to the Oregon Department of Education for the background review. Once completed, all applications and completed checks are maintained in a locked file cabinet located in the superintendent’s office.
The new district policy maintains any person requesting to go beyond a school office area will need such a background check.
“This is not an option for us,” Vale Elementary Principal Alisha McBride said in a presentation to the Vale School Board on Wednesday, Aug. 9. “Every district has to abide by the law. Anyone who has access to the students, even those just taking cupcakes down to a classroom, will need a background check.”
McBride said the school “loves to have parents come to the school” but the school lacks the staff to escort each visitor.
“The policy gives us the right to restrict access in the schools,” said McBride.
McBride also spoke of some in the district who criticized the new policy on social media sites.
“It is easy to bully and call names when sitting behind a computer screen,” McBride said.
One of those using social media to question the new procedures was school board member Jeff Mendiola.
Mendiola, who started his service in July, was questioned during the meeting if McBride’s explanation of the new policy was adequate.
“It’s crap,” said Mendiola. “It is just a thing the state forced down our throats.”
However, Mendiola said the new guidelines wouldn’t affect him.
“I don’t have any kids left in the school,” Mendiola said. “And I’m not ever coming here to the school to volunteer. I only come here for these meetings.”
Many in the audience questioned what crimes would disallow access to their children or if newly hired district staff were allowed to be in the school prior to the check being completed.
As others, parent Logan Hamilton said he didn’t understand the change but listened to school officials’ explanation.
“I support what the school is doing,” he said.
The Nyssa and Ontario school districts read the new law differently.
Nyssa saw a big increase in background checks as parents signed up for the eclipse event at Treasure Valley Community College, the venue selected by Nyssa to view the event.
“We have received well over 100 background applications from parents so they can be with their children for the eclipse,” said Nyssa Superintendent Jana Iverson.
Aside from this event, Iverson said the district defines a volunteer as a person “left alone to monitor students without a district employee present.”
“For a parent to deliver a birthday cake, no, we will continue with the policy we have in place,” Iverson said.
The Ontario district is reading the new law in the same manner as their neighbors in Nyssa.
“The Ontario School District runs background checks on all volunteers who have access to students in a volunteer capacity, whether it be a one-time event or weekly volunteer activities,” said Eric Norton, district personnel director. “Drop-offs, pick-ups, check-outs and other daily activities that bring parents into a building in a non-volunteer capacity do not fall under this requirement.”

Have a news tip? Contact reporter John L. Braese at 541-473-3377 or [email protected].