Pelham BOE provides update on background check policy

By BRIANA HARRIS / Staff Writer

PELHAM – Pelham City Board of Education President Rick Rhoades said the school board has been working diligently to properly vet a policy that has caused contention between the board and parents.

At a Pelham City Council meeting Monday, Oct. 17, Rhoades presented an update on the policy that 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.

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.

After seeking input from principals, assistant principals, central office staff and Pelham Police Chief Larry Palmer, Rhoades said the school board has unanimously decided that the policy is in the best interest of Pelham students.

Rhoades said there is still more research to be done, but the policy is still being enforced while that happens.

“This policy is not ill advised at all,” Rhoades said. “This isn’t a kneejerk reaction by the school board. We have hired people within our school system and we trust them to do a job, so when they tell you that this policy is needed – that’s pretty strong.”

Although there isn’t an overt threat on school campuses, Rhoades said the policy safeguards schools, may be a deterrent to anyone with ill intentions and makes the school day more manageable.

Rhoades said the school board is in the process of evaluating the structure of the whole policy. Everything from the cost of the background check, to implementation and the scope of offenses the school system will be on the lookout for is being reviewed.

“We are looking at other vendors to see if there is a better way to do this,” he said. “We don’t want the cost to be an issue and we don’t want it to be discriminatory.”

There isn’t a Spanish version of the background check available yet, but the third party vendor is working on the Spanish translation. School staff have been working with any visitors who need help completing the form.

Rhoades said the current background check form is too broad, so the school board is working to make it more concise. The system is mainly guarding against sex offenders and those convicted of violent crimes.

“Those are two things that we certainly want to know,” Rhoades said. “We’re not questioning people’s lifestyles or anything like that. We’re not trying to pry or embarrass anybody. We just want to create the safest environment for our schools.”

Any information uncovered in the background checks will be kept confidential. Rhoades said confidentiality isn’t an issue because schools deal with sensitive and confidential information on a daily basis.

Rhoades said the school system wants to hear more from parents about the policy and will most likely start with the Parent Teacher Organization first.

Kenneth Paschal, president of the Alabama Family Rights Association and a parental rights advocate, said he was disappointed with the update.

“They said they spoke with the police, principals and other trustworthy sources and they all agreed that this policy is necessary, but Family Rights and the Eagle Forum of Alabama sent letters to the school board opposing the policy and they didn’t seek our input – so are our opinions not trustworthy? I don’t know if he intended to imply that, but that’s the impression that it gave off. I was disappointed to hear that.”

Despite the school board’s attempt to justify the policy, Paschal said it isn’t warranted.

“What puzzles me is that if school safety is a concern, then why not hire an outside agency to come in and do a school safety assessment,” Paschal said. “There are agencies that perform these assessments nationwide. They identify what you’re doing well and what needs to be improved. If policy changes need to be made, even if parents disagree, they would accept it because there’s documentation to back it up.”

Paschal said he has spoken to parents who have said that they feel like the school system has failed to create a method for parents to address issues and concerns.

“The parents just want to feel included in the process,” he said.

City councilwoman Karyl Rice said she has heard parents say during conversations that they feel like the school board doesn’t want them in the schools.

“I don’t want parents and grandparents to feel like there’s a barrier between them and their child while they’re at school,” Rice said. “The school system has to prove to them that they’re not trying to make it hard for them to interact with their kids and grandkids.”

Pelham Mayor Gary Waters said he wants to go on record saying that he supports the policy.

“Sometimes I get a pass on taking a stance on controversial topics because I don’t have to vote yes or no, but I want to go on record supporting this policy,” he said.

Waters added that at times decisions made by elected officials and governing bodies are met with criticism and controversy, but he said it’s important to stay the course because it’s the right thing to do.

“This is typically the kind of thing that is enacted after a disaster, so I commend the school board for being proactive,” he said.