Who gets to volunteer at your kids’ school? Maybe it’s a question you haven’t thought about much. But when we learned that the guy who shot and killed two Berrien County courthouse officers was also a regular volunteer at his daughter’s elementary school despite his sizable criminal record, well, we thought it was time to take a closer look.
There’s lots of research that shows when parents are involved at school, their children do better academically. So, who gets to decide which parents are allowed to volunteer? Gone are the days when a parent could walk into school unannounced with a plate of brownies for a birthday party and not cause a stir.
Most districts have policies in place to vet volunteers, yet those policies can carry with them some unintended consequences.
Larry Johnson is in charge of public safety for Grand Rapids Public Schools, where they run what's
called an Internet Criminal History Access Tool (ICHAT) background check on all volunteers. He says the process used to be pretty cut and dry: if your background check showed a felony, you could not volunteer in a Grand Rapids school regardless of whether or not the crime was for a non-violent offense like writing a bad check.
Johnson, who also chairs the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, says parents pushed back and eventually convinced the Grand Rapids school district to deal with every background check on a case-by-case basis. "If there’s an arrest record," says Johnson, "we’ll look at what the arrest is, how long ago did it happen, does it have an impact on kids, and then we’ll make our decision based on that."
Most school officials we talked to for this story seem to operate in that grey area, trying to strike a balance between parental involvement and student safety, and many districts allow parents to appeal if they fail their background check. Still, there are some districts, like Wayne Westland, that don’t allow their volunteers any wiggle room; a felony is an automatic out. The district's assistant superintendent, Kelly Bohl, acknowledges that theirs is "a conservative approach," but says they like to err on the side of caution.
But here’s the catch: Even if a district does an ICHAT check, the database only pulls up state crimes. It doesn’t include federal crimes or crimes committed in other states. Here's a list of what ICHAT does and does not track, according to Michigan State Police:
The Internet Criminal History Access Tool (ICHAT) is a name-based search of public criminal history record information maintained by the Michigan State Police, Criminal Justice Information Center. All felonies and serious misdemeanors that are punishable by over 93 days are required to be reported to the state repository by law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and courts in all 83 Michigan counties. Suppressed records and warrant information are not available through ICHAT. Also NOT included are federal records, tribal records, traffic records, juvenile records, local misdemeanors and criminal history from other states. Required information to perform a search includes: First name, last name, sex and date of birth.
That explains why Larry Gordon, the Berrien County courthouse shooter, was able to volunteer at his daughter's elementary school: His background check only included state felonies and misdemeanors; it did not include the two stints he did in federal prison for crimes involving pipe bombs and firearms.
After Gordon's shooting spree at the Berrien County courthouse, WZZM-TV interviewed Watervliet Public School superintendent Kevin Schooley to find out more about why Gordon was allowed to volunteer at the local elementary school:.
The school principal says Gordon started as a classroom volunteer in November 2014.
Most recently, he had volunteered for holiday parties last Halloween and Valentines day of 2016. Just two months later, police found a 17-year-old girl in a shed who they say Gordon held captive, and raped.
"We do background checks, unfortunately the background check I saw I didn't see any violent crimes," says Schooley
The school never checked Gordon's record for federal crimes. The principal says that's because employees get fingerprinted, but not volunteers. She says they did a background check for Gordon once in fall of 2014 and then again in September of 2015.
We asked Schooley why they didn't look at federal court records. "That's what we're looking to bulk up," says Schooley.
On the other side of the state, in Monroe County, Barry Martin is bulking up his district's background check policy, too. As Superintendent of Monroe Public Schools, Martin has seen up close what a relatively lax volunteer vetting policy can do.
His district used to only do background checks mostly on volunteers who took on supervisory roles, like chaperoning a field trip. If a volunteer was going to be in a classroom with a teacher at all times, they didn't get a background check. But this past spring, they ran a background check on a parent who was volunteering in a classroom pretty regularly and they found out he was a registered sex offender.
"It would have been caught if we had done background checks for everyone," says Martin. So starting this fall, that's exactly what they'll do. If a parent wants to do anything more than pick up or drop off their child, Martin says they'll have to agree to two background checks a year, and they'll have to scan their driver's license into a new security system when they walk in the school.
The system will automatically run the driver's license against the national sex offender registry, "so it’ll be an immediate alert if that parent has an issue," says Martin. "Hopefully with these two new procedures we’ll never have an incident like we did last spring."
He says so far he hasn’t gotten any resistance from parents. "We just can’t be too careful anymore," he says. "We’re talking about kids."