New OUSD Security Policy 

Fingerprinting its Heroes

Some parents and guardians who signed up to volunteer at their child's Oakland public school this year weren't exactly welcomed with open arms. They were fingerprinted.

Kirsten Vital, the school district's chief of community accountability and top liaison with such volunteers, stated in an August memo to school administrators that any volunteers whose responsibilities "may result in their unsupervised work with students" are required to be fingerprinted. Vital urged principals to "err on the side of requiring the volunteer to be fingerprinted" if there was any doubt about what constitutes "unsupervised," the memo said. "This is in everyone's best interest."

By the way, that'll cost volunteers about $75 — annually.

District spokesperson Troy Flint said the reason for the rule is to "restrict the access [of] people with criminal backgrounds that suggest they may be a danger to children," although he said he couldn't say what type of behavior the district is most concerned about. But quite a few parents are annoyed at this new rule, which district officials say has been in effect since 2004 but is now being more strictly enforced. The original board policy is rather informal: "Fingerprinting and clearance may be required of volunteer applicants, depending upon the volunteer's responsibilities."

The policy change arose during a series of back-to-school meetings in mid-August. According to attendee Renato Almanzor, director of the district's Family and Community Office, one or a few of the eight supervisors who oversee the district's 108 principals asked a question about the fingerprinting policy.

Following the meeting, Vital sent the vaguely-worded missive, which caused mass confusion. So last week, Almanzor sent a follow-up, in hopes of clarifying. Almanzor urged principals to "exercise discretion" when deciding when volunteers should be fingerprinted. "Site administrators are given this amount of discretion because they know better than anyone else," he wrote. For example, drivers on day field trips are not necessarily required to get fingerprinted.

But that not-so-clarifying clarification was too late for parents at Redwood Heights Elementary, who decided to err on the side of caution. Parent Teacher Association president Paul Mankin said about 120 parents — whose emotions ranged from "angry to confused" — paid a combined $9,000 to get fingerprinted. Though Vital's initial memo stated the cost would be about $20, other fees from the Department of Justice and the FBI resulted in a total of $70 or more. "If you think about doing that six years in a row based on an annual requirement, it gets to be prohibitive," Mankin said. Flint administrators say they're currently looking into ways to subsidize the cost.

Perhaps that's why not all school principals appear to be enforcing the policy. Mankin said he's talked to some parents at other schools who weren't even aware of the requirement. Parents from only about 5 of the 108 district schools — including Redwood Heights, Peralta, Crocker Highlands, and Joaquin Miller — sent protest e-mails, Almanzor said.

As if that weren't confusing enough, Almanzor says the district actually wants volunteers to register with its volunteer placement program, HEROES (Helpers Engaged in Reaching Oakland's Excelling Schools) to ensure more rigorous fingerprinting. Only about 500 volunteers registered with HEROES last year. Almanzor guesses most volunteers aren't registered. "Principals aren't required to have volunteers registered through HEROES," he said. "We're asking them to do it so they're in the database. They may have their own database, but we don't know." It should be noted, however, that neither Almanzor's or Vital's memos said anything about HEROES, but did instruct principals to maintain a log of their school's volunteers. Flint noted there is currently no punitive measure for schools that don't enforce the fingerprinting or logging policy.

So just how much of a threat do volunteers pose to Oakland schoolkids? And what sort of offenses would render one unworthy of being a volunteer? Flint said the district's police services make that determination. District chief of police Michael Holland could not be reached for comment by press time.

"We want as much responsible volunteer participation as possible in Oakland schools, and we hesitate to create any barriers to that," Flint said. "Yet at the same time, safety must be the first priority. Care of the children is a sacred trust, and if relaxing the rules puts at least even one student or employee at increased risk, it can't be justified." — Kathleen Richards

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