ACLU Sues Over “Severe, Unfair and Discriminatory” Cranston School Policy

Posted: Aug, 23, 2010

The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a mother who has been barred from volunteering at her child’s elementary school because she has a past criminal history of drug addiction. This is so despite the fact that the mother’s drug problems predate her child’s birth and she has been involved since then in promoting drug abuse prevention.

The lawsuit, filed today in Superior Court by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate, is on behalf of Cranston resident Jessica Gianfrocco. The suit challenges a Cranston School Committee policy, adopted last year over the ACLU’s objections, requiring all school volunteers to undergo a criminal records check, and disqualifying parents with felony drug offenses.

Ms. Gianfrocco 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, which occurred in late 2003, and who will be attending first grade next month. As part of her recovery, Gianfrocco sought professional treatment and continues to participate in a 12-step program. She has served as a “team mom” for her daughter’s cheerleading team, volunteered at her daughter’s day care for three years, 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 is presently taking classes to earn a Licensed Chemical Dependency Professional certificate.

When her daughter enrolled in kindergarten last fall at Arlington Elementary School, she applied to become a school volunteer so that she could participate in school activities with her child, such as PTO events which require volunteers. Although she took the step of providing numerous letters of recommendation, school officials denied her application because of her criminal record. As a result, she is presently a correspondence coordinator for her child’s school PTO, but she cannot help out at any event involving school children.

The school committee adopted this stringent policy requiring BCI checks even though the policy also provides that volunteers “shall not be in a one-on-one situation with a child” and that volunteering should only take place in the presence of other school personnel. At the time the policy was proposed, the ACLU called it “intrusive” and “unnecessary.” The lawsuit notes that, under state law, school teachers themselves are not automatically disqualified from employment based on a criminal record or drug-related disability, and that commercial vendors and others are excluded from the policy’s requirements as long as they are accompanied by school personnel.

The lawsuit claims that Cranston’s policy violates Gianfrocco’s equal protection rights and various state laws barring discrimination on the basis of disability. Those laws protect recovering addicts from discriminatory treatment. The suit seeks a court order declaring the school district’s actions unlawful.

Gianfrocco said today, “I strongly feel that I have been discriminated against and unfairly stigmatized because of my past. I’ve worked hard to turn my life around, and my daughter should have the same opportunity as every other child.”

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Iafrate added: “People who have been convicted of drug offenses in their past face numerous hurdles and barriers in employment, housing and elsewhere even after they have worked hard to become productive members of society. Through this lawsuit, we hope to eliminate at least one of those unnecessary barriers.”

RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown noted that public schools across Rhode Island have begun considering stringent criminal record check requirements for school volunteers. As a result, he said, “more and more parents are finding themselves unable to actively participate 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. Cranston’s severe, unfair and discriminatory policy – and others like it – cruelly serves only to needlessly punish and stigmatize parents who have rehabilitated themselves.”