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ACLU Settles Lawsuit Over Cranston School District Volunteer Policy

Posted: December 27, 2012|Category: Discrimination

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The Rhode Island ACLU today announced the settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2010 against the Cranston School Department on behalf of a mother who had been barred from volunteering at her child’s elementary school because she had a past criminal history of drug addiction. The ban was imposed despite the fact that the mother’s drug problems predated her child’s birth and she had since been involved for years in promoting drug abuse prevention.

Under the settlement agreement, the mother, Jessica Doyle, is now allowed to volunteer, and the school district’s volunteer policy, adopted in 2009, has been significantly revised. It eliminates drug and other offenses as an automatic disqualification from volunteering, and instead requires the school superintendent, if requested, to consider various factors -- such as the date of conviction, rehabilitative efforts, and community involvement – submitted by a parent who has a “disqualifying” criminal record. Other policy changes protect the privacy of parents’ BCI information.

Ms. Doyle was a heroin addict for about five years in her early 20’s. During that time, she was twice convicted for felony drug possession related to her addiction. Her criminal record predates the birth of her daughter in 2003. As part of her recovery, Doyle obtained professional treatment. She served as a “team mom” for her daughter’s cheerleading team, volunteered at her day care, and even traveled to Washington D.C., as part of a Brown University program, to speak to members of Congress to promote drug prevention funding. She now has a Licensed Chemical Dependency Professional certificate and currently works at SSTARBirth, a residential substance abuse treatment program for pregnant and postpartum women and their children.

When her daughter enrolled in kindergarten at Arlington Elementary School, Doyle applied to become a school volunteer so that she could participate in school activities with her child. Although she provided numerous letters of recommendation, school officials denied her application because of her criminal record. Although Doyle was allowed to be a member of the PTO, and ultimately one of its officers, she was still prevented from helping out at certain events involving supervision of children.In response to the settlement, Doyle said today: “This month, I volunteered for a viewing of The Polar Express at my daughter’s school. I was grateful to have this opportunity and excited to start making memories with her that will last a lifetime.”

At the time the 2009 policy was adopted, the ACLU called it “intrusive” and “unnecessary.” Under state law, schoolteachers themselves are not automatically disqualified from employment based on a criminal record or drug-related disability. The ACLU lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate, raised several constitutional and statutory claims against the policy.

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Iafrate said: “This is the perfect example of why blanket prohibitions on school volunteers who have prior criminal conduct are totally unjustified. The City was never able to demonstrate any connection between passing a criminal background check and suitability to volunteer. This is a woman totally dedicated to her family, to her community, and to her recovery and who deserved to be able to extend that commitment to her daughter’s school.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “Stringent criminal records checks for volunteers prevent parents from actively participating in their children’s educational lives because of mistakes they made when they were younger. It is well-known that very positive benefits – to parent, child and school – flow from parental involvement in their children’s school activities. It is counter-productive to needlessly punish and stigmatize parents who have rehabilitated themselves. We are pleased that the school district recognized that.

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