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Friday, September 13, 2013

Ex-Con Parents Blocked From Volunteering At School

Ex-felons often have difficulty transitioning back into society. It’s tough for them to find a job, and the label “ex-felon” alone can close even more doors.

For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, many parents have been blocked from volunteering at their children’s schools because of prior crimes they’ve committed. In most cases, the convictions involved non-violent offenses and didn’t involve children.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Devin Katayama of WFPL has more.





Ex-felons often have difficulty transitioning back into society. It's tough for them to find a job and the label ex-felon alone can close even more doors. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, many parents have been blocked from volunteering at their children's schools because of prior crimes they've committed, even if most of them were nonviolent offenses and don't involve children. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WFPL's Devin Katayama has more.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: Honey Dozier fits the profile of a commonly rejected parent in Jefferson County Public Schools. She's white, female, and her prior offense was non-violent. Dozier says when she was 18, before she had her first child, she made a mistake. It was a big mistake. She stole and used other people's credit cards. That's a felony. Since then she's had four children.

HONEY DOZIER: And at what point do I receive that acknowledgement that my time is done and over with, and me and my family can move on from that?

KATAYAMA: This story is more common than you might think. Last year, Cranston Public Schools in Rhode Island revised its volunteer policy after a woman who was barred because of prior drug arrests sued the district. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, parents with criminal backgrounds petitioned against their district's policy. But in areas like Jefferson County, Kentucky, many schools with the neediest students are also rejecting the most volunteers. According to a county report, a majority of the rejections in the 2010-2011 year were related to drug offenses, and the average number of years since the arrest was six. Dozier was arrested over two decades ago.

DOZIER: It's embarrassing to talk with other mothers and say that you can't go on the field trip. So it was something that I actually kept a secret.

KATAYAMA: In Jefferson Country, rejected parents and volunteers can still participate in their students' education, which studies show can lead to better grades and higher graduation rates. Allene White Gold is director for the district's volunteer center.

ALLENE WHITE GOLD: Yes, something bad has happened and it's on your record. But there are still things that you can do because you are, in fact, the best teacher for your child and we want you involved.

KATAYAMA: Gold says parents can still have lunch with their child and participate in the PTA. They can also go on field trips, but only if they transport themselves and only supervise their child.

GOLD: If you are a rejected parent, you can't chaperone on a field trip because at some point you may be asked to take a group of students on your own without being under the supervision of a JCPS staff person.

KATAYAMA: Kentucky requires all schools to perform state background checks on volunteers. But after that, local districts set the rules for who can participate and how. And there are dozens of variations of district policies in the state. Some ban prior felons with drug offenses for a few years and then open the application back up. Jefferson County is among the districts that ban prior felons with no appeals process and no way to serve out their time. Some see the issue of background checks as one of many challenges that prevent ex-felons from reentering a society that has attached stigma to the label. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul says this is part of a larger systemic problem that also needs to be addressed at the federal level.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: There are some people who really aren't going to be forgiven for some violent crimes. They're just not going to be allowed around kids. But for non-violent crimes and youthful mistakes and indiscretions, I think there needs to be a way to work your way back into society.

KATAYAMA: Whether rejecting applicants correlates to safer schools is unknown. Officials for the U.S. Department of Education say they have no research on background checks. Lenore Skenazy wrote the controversial article in the New York Sun, "Why I Let My 9-Year Old Ride The Subway Alone." She argues parents are too protective of their children and has received hundreds of comments and emails on background checks from her blog, Free Range Kids. She reads one.

LENORE SKENAZY: I am prevented from serving as a field trip chauffeur because you can't be a chauffeur if you've ever lost your license or had it suspended. And mine was suspended for 14 days when I was 16 and still insanely stupid.

KATAYAMA: Skenazy says nobody volunteers at schools to harm children and the real danger exists out in the community or at home. In Jefferson Country, the public school system rejected over 1,000 potential volunteers in 2010. Beginning this year, the county will be sending home information to those rejected, explaining ways they can still participate in their students' education. But parents like Honey Dozier argue that's not enough. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Devin Katayama in Louisville, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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