Do Schools Ever Run Background Checks on Parents?

Volunteers are a critical part of the educational workforce nationwide, and many of those volunteers are parents. Should schools require parents to pass a background check before they volunteer—or even before they show up to attend a school play? Explore the answer to these questions now.

Protecting children under school supervision is one of the educational administration's most critical responsibilities. All the other benefits of education can only function from a safe and secure foundation. As a result, a high level of scrutiny is often required to work within school systems and related organizations. Most often, there are even legislative requirements that make processes such as background checks a mandatory part of the hiring process.

It makes good sense: no parent wants their child to be taught by someone with a history of habitual violence or abuse, for example. There are many potential red flags in someone's background that could mean they are not a suitable fit for positions of authority or supervision over children. Even then, background checks are no cure-all — there are still unfortunate headlines about abuse and misuse of power every year.

Yet while so much of the scrutiny focuses on teachers, administrators, and others who work on campus every day throughout the school year, there is another that education employers shouldn't overlook. What about the parents? Are there scenarios when requiring parents to submit a background check could be a good idea?

The answer is yes — and the lengths some school districts will go to emphasize safety may surprise you. As we explore when and why to use background checks on parents of students at your organization, start considering what approach might be best for your organization.

Understanding When Schools Use Background Checks

Let's clear up one misconception right from the start: parents don't need to pass a background check to enroll their child at a school. There is no reason for individuals to worry that criminal convictions in their past will impact their child's ability to attend a good school—it simply does not happen. If a school did try to require parents to pass a background check for enrollment, it would likely run afoul of several federal anti-discrimination laws.

However, many other cases exist when a school may require parents to pass a background check. The most common example applies to volunteers who plan to regularly work on campus. There are numerous volunteer positions that background checks might apply to:

  • School sports coaches, assistance coaches, or support staff
  • Teacher's aide
  • Lunch support staff
  • Tutors
  • Front office/reception
  • Chaperones

In these cases, the volunteers in question will spend a significant amount of time on campus and have frequent interactions with children. These are scenarios where bad actors could take advantage of their authority and commit possible crimes. Schools aim to use background checks on these critical positions to ensure an understanding of everyone who works on and visits campus. A simple oversight could lead to a life-changing event — and unfortunately, there is no shortage of stories of volunteers grooming and abusing students.

Some schools want to go even further. In an unusual step, the South Vermillion School District in Indiana announced in 2013 a new background check policy. At the beginning of every school year, parents receive disclosure paperwork and a request for consent to perform a background check. Parents must submit to this check and pass if they wish to attend their children's field trips or any special school events, such as holiday parties, school plays, and band performances.

A decade later, that policy remains in place. Some other districts, such as North Carolina, have implemented similar policies. Whether this approach is legally enforceable remains untested, but some parents have expressed concerns about invasions of privacy and how schools will handle their background data. Before closing off events typically open to the public, it may be wise to consult with a lawyer in your local jurisdiction to evaluate the legality of this approach.

The Benefits of Using Volunteer Background Checks

Schools rely on volunteers for many reasons. First, it allows parents an opportunity to be engaged and involved in their child's education outside of the home. Second, volunteers make it easier to stretch the often-strained budgets many public (and even some private) schools face today. 

Some educational employers may worry that requiring volunteers to pass a background check could slow down the recruitment process and leave important positions unstaffed. That is a genuine concern — but the advantages of adding vetting into the process typically outweigh those worries. What are the benefits?

  • Avoid putting potentially dangerous individuals in roles of authority over children.
  • Better select the volunteers most likely to create a positive atmosphere.
  • Demonstrate due diligence and reduce the potential for negligence and liability.
  • Offer new opportunities to those working hard on rehabilitation.
  • Increase parental confidence in school safety and build a reputation of trust.

What can happen if you skip parent background checks for important roles? The consequences can range from an outcry in the community to the potential for serious harm if you allow a convicted sex offender to be a volunteer. Although a clear background check is no guarantee that a parent will behave appropriately, it can go a long way toward alleviating the concerns of administrators and even other parents.

Striking the Right Balance for Educational Organizations

It is vital to strengthen the safety policies surrounding parents as volunteers in schools, but you might do so with a well-defined policy. Lay the goals of your policy and clearly define what you will consider to be disqualifying or not disqualifying. It is also important to think about some of the tough questions, such as "are we creating too many barriers for volunteers?" 

Additionally, who will pay for the background checks? Not every district has the cash to add extra vetting into its process, but shifting the burden onto volunteers might limit the number of people who can afford to offer their help. There is no clear-cut answer to these questions. Rather, they demand an in-depth consideration on a case-by-case basis.

Preventing parents from being on campus and being an active part of their child's educational experience is not something any administrator wishes to do. Consider a case when a man's past drug convictions suddenly surfaced as he worked as a volunteer coach. Though he was swiftly terminated from the position, many parents complained that it was unfair to the man and those he coached. Navigating difficulties such as these are a necessary part of building a process that is both safe and fair to those involved.

Building a Safer Environment Starts Today

The right policy for any given school, district, or independent educational provider should always have the highest possible level of safety as its goal. Background checks aren't the end of the story — they're only the beginning. The best approach is one that combines periodic vetting for those in potentially sensitive roles

Should all schools adopt policies similar to South Vermillion by requiring parents to submit to background checks at the start of the year? That's not an easy question to answer, but it does provide food for thought for administrators looking at how to strengthen their approach to safety. With tools available today that can provide instant background checks, it's easier than ever to vet volunteers and other on-campus helpers. 

Find out more about using background checks on volunteers and explore other topics of critical importance surrounding school safety in our Learning Center today.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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