Roaring Fork school board candidates address background checks issue
Background checks for school volunteers are needed to ensure student safety, but there shouldn’t be barriers to volunteering based on a person’s citizenship status, candidates for the Roaring Fork District board agreed at a Monday forum.
Candidates for three seats on the local school board in the Nov. 5 mail ballot election each addressed a recent question that came up regarding the district’s volunteer vetting process. The exchange came during the annual Glenwood Springs Chamber’s Issues and Answers Forum held at Glenwood City Hall.
At issue is not the requirement for background checks, or even the use of fingerprints to obtain a full background check, said Jasmin Ramirez, a candidate in the three-way race for the board’s District D seat.
“None of the parents, either documented or not, want to eliminate background checks,” Ramirez said. “This is not about getting our fingerprints taken. … It’s literally about one question that says, are you legal, or are you not here legally, and the fear that causes for our families in this community.”
Some electronic forums used for would-be volunteers to apply to have digital fingerprints taken through area law enforcement agencies ask that question, and don’t allow an applicant to opt out. Paper fingerprinting is still done by some agencies, however, and the question can be optional.
Ramirez said she is running for the board to represent the 55% of the Roaring Fork School District’s student body that is Latino, and their families.
It’s not that any parent who wants to volunteer in the schools disagrees with proper vetting, she said, “They just want you to understand that this question limits their ability to be involved in their child’s education.”
Incumbent District D board representative Shane Larson said the board is approaching the issue with that in mind.
“Like everybody else, we do not want to jeopardize the safety of children, but we also absolutely do not want to put barriers for those who want to volunteer to be in the schools,” Larson said.
Larson related his youth coaching experience and referred to a residential youth program at Colorado Mountain College where he works as examples. Both require background checks, but neither asks for fingerprints, he said.
“When you look at background checks in general, you can get a very thorough background check without fingerprints,” Larson said.
The school board on Wednesday night will review options to revise the district’s current volunteer vetting process, including a tiered approach to determining the types of volunteers who should have a broader background check using fingerprints, and which ones can go through a basic name check.
“We have in-sight volunteers who are never out of the sight of a teacher, and are constantly supervised,” Larson said. “When you get to the chaperone level and overnight trips, there is a different level vetting for that type of volunteering.”
Amy Connerton, who is also running for the District D seat on the school board, agreed that a tiered approach can work but said the district should not compromise student safety in any way.
“When you don’t provide a fingerprint, it is not as thorough as when you do,” she said. “I think we can take a different approach to how we vet volunteers.”
But, “It’s also so important to have family engagement and involvement in our district, and we don’t want to set these types of barriers,” Connerton said.
Candidates for the District B and C seats on the school board who are unopposed on the Nov. 5 ballot also addressed the volunteer vetting question at the Monday forum.
“The vetting process does need to be very much in line with what we are having them do in our schools,” District B candidate Natalie Torres said.
Added Maureen Stepp, who is running for the District C seat, “School safety should be a primary concern of the school district and the school board … but I also understand that we have members of our community for whom that poses a problem.
“We don’t want to discourage people from volunteering in the classroom.”
The school board candidates will meet again in a second forum this week, taking place at 5:30 Wednesday at Bridges High School in Carbondale, and sponsored by the Roaring Fork Community Education Association and the school district.
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