September 2007

Three states passed laws in 2007 that addressed fingerprinting or doing background checks on school volunteers. The most recent, in New Hampshire, takes effect in mid-September and requires certain “designated volunteers,” as defined by each local school district, to submit to a criminal history records check. Similar legislation has been adopted in five other states since 2000.

The regulations governing these background checks vary greatly from state to state. New Mexico, for one, requires background checks on all volunteers in its bill adopted in April. New Jersey, on the other hand, which passed a related law in May, “allows” local entities to conduct criminal records checks for volunteers but does not mandate it.

Where state law is less strict, local municipalities and even school boards can adopt their own policies that are more stringent—and many have. In fact, they’re encouraged to conduct criminal background checks on all volunteers according to national guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses, among other organizations.

Legislation and local policies related to screening school volunteers are most often concerned with charges of sexual abuse or molestation of children. But many parent groups find that mandatory background checks discourage potential volunteers. The key is finding a balance between keeping children safe and also maintaining an inclusive spirit.

For example, a school district might require background clearance for any adult who will be in direct contact with students; parent group members who want to volunteer in other ways, such as by stuffing envelopes, soliciting donations, or designing a flyer, could be allowed to do so without screening.