Pennsylvania School District Struggles with Volunteer Background Check Dilemma

By Michael Klazema on 3/6/2015

Is it better to pay for background checks, or to lose volunteers? That's the dilemma facing Mechanicsburg Area School District in the wake of a new package of laws recently enacted in the district's home state of Pennsylvania.

The laws, inspired by the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal that broke in 2011, require among other things that all school volunteers working with children undergo background checks once every three years. It's a good call on the state's part, and one that will help to make schools safer for students. Unfortunately, the school districts in the state are now forced to face the financial implications of the new laws, and some of them, like Mechanicsburg, are having a tough time.

The volunteer background checks mandated by Pennsylvania state law focus primarily on uncovering instances of child abuse in a volunteer's past. That's not a concept that any school district official could argue with, and that's certainly not the factor with which the Mechanicsburg Area School District has taken issue. Rather, it's the $20 price tag associated with each volunteer background check that is causing pause. Specifically, district officials are worried that the cost of volunteer checks could add up for struggling families, and could be a reason that parents decide not to volunteer. And as the Mechanicsburg superintendent has said, both the students and the district as a whole benefit from having parents in the classroom. Anything that discourages parents from taking an active role in their child's learning and development is something that the district wants to investigate further.

With all of this in mind, the Mechanicsburg Area School District doesn't want to force volunteers to pay the background check fee. Right now, the district's policy is that it will pay for background checks for any volunteers who devote 10 or more volunteering hours to the schools. Such a model could actually encourage parents to volunteer more, rather than the other way around. But the district isn't sure that it has the taxpayer dollars to support that particular model, and monitoring volunteer hours or reimbursing parents for background check expenses after 10 hours could get confusing anyway.

As a compromise, the district is currently drafting a policy that would cover volunteer expenses for those struggling with financial hardship. Everyone else would still be required to pay, though, which might be a sore subject for some of the more dedicated volunteers. Then again, the school board expects that there will be people in the community who have a problem with the fee no matter what. In other words, the Mechanicsburg Area School District is prepared to lose a couple of volunteers over this issue.


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