Pelham parents, community leaders voice concern about PCS policy

Published 2:39 pm Wednesday, September 28, 2016

By BRIANA HARRIS / Staff Writer

PELHAM – Several parents and community leaders asked questions and voiced concern at a Pelham Board of Education meeting on Monday, Sept. 26, about a policy requiring anyone who wishes to eat lunch with a student at school to pay for and pass a criminal background check.

The policy, which was adopted by the board this summer, requires criminal background checks for all parents or other volunteers who accompany field trips or participate in school day activities, including lunch with students. Exemptions are permitted for widely attended events, such as Grandparents Day, PTO meetings and athletic games.

The background check, which checks criminal history for the past seven years, costs $15 and is administered through a third party vendor hired by the school system. The school system does not receive any money from the cost of the background check, Pelham City Schools Superintendent Scott Coefield said.

Coefield said PCS Director of Operations Floyd Collins will make the final decision about whether a person passes or fails the background check. The names of those who pass the background check will be added to a database of people who are approved. There is not a list for people who fail the background check.

“We don’t have a hard line about what is and isn’t acceptable,” Coefield said. “We have to use our discretion.”

If Collins has a hard time making a decision, he will consult Coefield. Coefield said the school system is on the lookout for anyone with a history of drug-related crimes, domestic violence and other violent crimes.

Some community leaders and residents who attended the meeting voiced their concerns about the policy, while school administrators at the meeting were supportive of the policy.

Kenneth Paschal, president of the Alabama Family Rights Association and a parental rights advocate, said he will fight the school board “tooth and nail, day and night” until the policy is vetted properly.

“I’ve worked nonstop for the last seven years trying to help strengthen the relationship between parent and child,” Paschal said. “When I received a phone call telling me that Pelham City Schools is making parents pay to have lunch with their kids, for the first time in seven years I was embarrassed to be a citizen of Pelham.”

In addition to hindering a parent’s ability to spend time with their child, Paschal said the policy is illegal because it places an undue burden on fit parents. Paschal also raised concerns about the policy being unconstitutional.

“Over the years we’ve seen an increase of government entities trying to impose on parental rights, but higher courts have said that parents are deemed fit until proven otherwise,” Paschal said.

By approving the policy, Paschal said the school board is saying that parents have to prove that they’re worthy before being allowed to enter the school to have lunch with their child.

Coefield said the policy is an attempt to address school safety, which is included in the system’s strategic plan as an area of focus for the school system. The strategic plan states that school safety includes controlled access to all buildings and an identification system for visitors and employees.

Paschal said the policy may also be a hardship on some parents who live paycheck to paycheck. If both parents want to eat lunch with their child, it will cost the family $30.

Paschal asked the board to suspend the policy until it is properly vetted by the school system’s legal counsel.

Coefield said the school system’s legal counsel is looking into the legality of the policy. He said the issue of legality was never a concern for him because two other school systems in Alabama require criminal background checks and numerous school systems use Raptor Technologies to identify and alert them of sex offenders.

City Council members Maurice Mercer and Karyl Rice said they have received numerous calls from residents about the policy. Mercer said his concern is that the policy has not been thought through enough.

Coefield said he got the idea to require parents to submit to a criminal background check after noticing how many parents visit schools each day to eat lunch with kids. The school system has an open-door policy regarding school lunch, which means parents don’t have to get permission or give prior notice before coming to the school.

“Before now, I had never been in a school system with an open-door policy for parents to come and eat lunch with students,” Coefield said. “There were specific days set aside for parents and grandparents to do those types of things.”

Coefield said an open-door policy presents a safety concern.

“When children are at school, we are making decisions for the child in place of the parent, who has placed the child in our care,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our students.”

One parent at the meeting said he’s concerned about the impact the policy will have on the school system’s Hispanic population. Coefield said he has not received any complaints from Hispanic parents about the policy, but the parent said it might be because they don’t want to stick out or bring attention to themselves.

As of now, there is not a version of the background check printed in Spanish, but Coefield said the third party vendor is working to make one available.

Another parent raised the issue of liability, asking if the school system would be held responsible if information about someone’s background was leaked. And although it may not be the school board’s intention, she said the policy might make some parents feel unwelcomed.