Legally Speaking

Don't Be at Risk

As budgets tighten and other organizational pressures mount, schools are relying more than ever on volunteers. Unfortunately, inconsistent vetting of volunteers can expose your school to unintended risk. While laws and policies regarding background checks for volunteers are different for every state and school district, screening is fast becoming a prerequisite to volunteering at schools.

To increase security, some schools have adopted volunteer or visitor management systems with background checks embedded into the workflow. These systems are gaining momentum but they are not without their limitations.

The hallmark of many visitor management systems is their ability to provide a quick screen. However, don’t mistake this “instant” search for a real-time one. With most of today’s technologies, a visitor (or volunteer) entering a building may swipe their driver’s license, triggering an instant sex offender database check.

Though there is tangible reward in having someone gain the green light to enter, behind this rapid go-ahead is typically a static database that has not been updated in months, is missing hundreds of thousands of records and registers a misleadingly low “hit rate.” This type of immediate screening may be adequate for a short-term, escorted visitor to your campus; it is not appropriate for volunteers.

The best way to protect your school community is to recognize what constitutes a comprehensive, quality background check. Screening should cover all volunteers, even if they are working with you on a temporary basis.

The type of screen may vary based on the expected length of their service and the amount of contact they will have with students. For more thorough background checks, we advise schools to do the following.

Use the Most Comprehensive Sex Offender Search

Not all sex offender databases are created equal. The only comprehensive search available in the country, and the only one you should be using, is the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW).

The NSOPW contains national sex offender data from sources such as the U.S. Department of Justice and state, territorial and tribal governments. Dependence on any other sex offender database may leave you open to unnecessary risk.

Conduct Multiple Searches

When conducting criminal record checks, don’t rely too heavily on one source. There is no single database that contains every criminal record. Using multiple searches provides a more thorough look into a volunteer’s criminal past and fills in as many gaps as possible. Along with the NSOPW sex offender search, background checks should search the county or state courthouse, current addresses and address history, and alias and maiden names. Depending on a volunteer’s role, a search might also include motor vehicle record checks, credit checks and reference checks.

Don’t Over-Rely on Fingerprint Checks

Fingerprint checks are well-known and they may be required in certain situations; however, the notion that they are the most reliable way to conduct criminal record checks is a fallacy. Fingerprint checks query the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which is based on voluntary submission of records by each state. The records are often flawed, inaccurate and missing critical information. For a more reliable search, you should use a combination of county and state searches based on address history, nationwide databases and NSOPW. If you are required by law to conduct fingerprint checks for paid staff, check to see if the laws also specify volunteers.

Validate the Identity of Your Volunteers

If a volunteer uses a fake ID, the information used to run the background check is no longer accurate. Consider employing a third-party validation technology. These advanced photo technologies can verify that an ID a legitimate government-issued ID.

Identify Other Areas That Are Vulnerable

Student safety is paramount, but it may not be your school’s only vulnerability. Background checks also protect your assets and reputation. Any individual who handles finances, personally identifiable information (PII) or technology, or makes important decisions on behalf of your school should also be screened.

Rescreen Volunteers Regularly

Once you’ve screened a volunteer, you should not assume that means they are clear of criminal history forever. Volunteers need to be rescreened to ensure your school has the latest information about their potential criminal history. Verified Volunteers recommends rescreening volunteers annually.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Katie Zwetzig is executive director of Verified Volunteers, which provides volunteer screening for schools, libraries and other education-focused institutions. She can be reached at katie@verifiedvolunteers.com.

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