Are Criminal Background Checks for School and Community Volunteers a Step Too Far?

We’ve covered the use of criminal background checks for volunteers before, including for roles in schools, recreational organizations, and mentoring programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters. In recent news, the use of background checks in such instances has taken two different turns. In one, in Emerson, New Jersey, a background check policy was passed as a requirement for all borough volunteers. In another, parents of students in Grand Rapids, Michigan, want such a policy lifted.

In the former instance, Emerson started requiring criminal background checks last week for all borough volunteers involving children. According to the article linked from, this ranges from sports leagues, boards, and commissions to any role involving coaching, supervising, directing, or assisting. The criminal background checks, in this case, will take fingerprints from volunteers and compare them with state and FBI records, and those submitting to checks do not need to pay.

A key point mentioned in the article is the use of background check results. Not everyone with a criminal past will be barred, however; only those who have committed crimes that would have an effect on the safety of children. More specifically, anyone who has committed assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, bigamy, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance cannot volunteer, according to the article.

The Argus Leader, on the other hand, paints a different picture concerning criminal background checks in Grand Rapids schools. According to the Argus Leader article, parents of students enrolled in Grand Rapids schools cannot volunteer unless they’ve passed a criminal background check and, unlike in Emerson, New Jersey, the policy doesn’t discriminate. Parents, particularly those who committed minor crimes decades ago, are banned from volunteering and, as a result, have put together a petition that, according to the article, has received 300 signatures.

As both of these recent incidents indicate, the application of background checks is nearly as important as the conducting of an investigation. While the safety of children and the school’s liability are both issues, parents who haven’t committed crimes in decades shouldn’t be barred from participating in organizations in which their children are involved. Do you think that background check policies for volunteers are a step too far or a step in the right direction for the safety of children?