Teaching Suspicions

by DAVID PRICE

At a PTA meeting two weeks ago I learned that all parent-volunteers at my daughter’s primary school are now required to submit to a criminal background check which includes a (thus far) "voluntary" request for the parent’s thumbprint. My school district in Olympia, Washington is not alone in adopting such measures, other school districts in the state and across the county have recently adopted similar policies, and other districts are considering similar procedures in the name of increasing "school safety"–this despite a lack of evidence that such measures will make our children any safer.

As a civil libertarian who has been an active classroom volunteer for the past seven years, I object to my school district’s demand that I subject myself to a criminal background check and to "voluntarily" submit my thumbprint so that I can accompany my child on a fieldtrip or help with classroom chores. It is a minor thing, but I have long been disappointed that my children will never be taught by even one teacher in the public schools who is the type of civil libertarian that would refuse to submit to being fingerprinted as a condition of employment. These new policies now guarantee that school children will not have classroom contact with civil libertarian parents or other citizens who will not submit to such invasive background checks. While this might make John Ashcroft breath easier, this doesn’t make me feel better about the safety of school children.

But my worries about these new policies reach beyond my civil liberty concerns (and because school districts care little about civil liberties and are not likely to be moved by such arguments, it makes sense for parents and concerned citizens to focus their protests in another direction): I am worried about the predictable negative impact of this policy on the academic development of children already at risk of academic failure. It is surprising to find our standardized-test-obsessed-schools not worrying about the significant but unintended negative consequence of these policies as they stand to further alienate low-income parents who will become even more frightened of meaningfully entering their children’s schools.

I know from my years working with families participating in a low-income family literacy program on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (a region with extraordinarily high poverty rates due to declines in the timber industry) that just asking parents for fingerprints and permission for a police background check will frighten away many low-income parents with records for nonviolent offences from any participation–regardless of the fact that these forms state that such past infringements will not disqualify a parent from volunteering. These parents are already fearful of the schools, and because they do not want to risk revealing their past legal problems they will bypass opportunities to be active supportive educational partners. Several years ago I interviewed a father who told me that he had planed to attend a Cub Scout camping trip with his son’s troop, but when he had been asked to submit to a criminal history background check authorization form he quietly withdrew as he did not want anyone to know about a long-previous non-violent clash with the law (a not uncommon experience for Americans living in poverty). I told this father that his past troubles would likely not matter to the Scouts and I encouraged him to reconsider his decision, but he did not want his past investigated so he did not attend the outing and an important opportunity for a supportive father-son experience was lost. This was not an isolated incident and other impoverished parents I interviewed recounted similar fears.

School policy makers know there is a vast literature on early childhood education establishing that visible parental involvement in classroom education significantly strengthens young students’ academic interests, commitments and outcomes. In fact, parental support and interest in school work is one of the strongest predictors of later academic success. These new policies authorizing police background checks stand to alienate an entire class of parents-arguably the class of parents whose presence as volunteers could make the most significant impact.

Some state PTA’s have opposed policies mandating police background checks of parents for just these reasons. The Nevada PTA took an official stance opposing the police background checks of parents; it instead advocates the commonsense practice of adopting policies for supervising parent volunteers. The Nevada PTA views parental background checks as being antithetical to their mission of getting parents more involved in student classroom activities. Nevada PTA President D.J. Stutz argues that "In Nevada, there has not yet been a reported incident of a volunteer molesting or assaulting a child at school, while teachers, who are required to be fingerprinted and do have to have background checks, cannot make the same claim." Indeed, in my own community this past week a former teacher who passed a thorough police background check has been charged with murder and child rape.

There will no doubt be legal challenges to this new affront to civil liberties, as schools place parents in a double-bind wherein their children are required by law to attend schools that parents may not meaningfully enter unless they surrender their privacy rights. Perhaps the courts will need to remind schools (to paraphrase Justice Brennan) that children are not the only ones who do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the school house door. But we all know that the current chill on civil liberties creates a climate in which fear trumps rational concerns. As civil rights are increasingly seen as "civil privileges," our hopes for the courts to defend our rights are likewise reduced.

Parents and non-parents alike need to speak-out to their school boards, local and state PTAs and state Education Departments to challenge this affront to civil liberties and to demand that schools take responsibility for further alienating families with students at risk.

DAVID PRICE is an Associate Professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s College. He is a card carrying member of the PTA, his book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists will be published this spring by Duke University Press. He can be reached at: dprice@stmartin.edu

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