North Allegheny revamping proposed policy on background checks for school volunteers

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The North Allegheny School District is revamping its proposed policy on background checks for parents who volunteer in the schools.

School board President Chris Jacobs said Aug. 27 that the district will seek more community feedback on the policy, which had been scheduled for a vote that evening.

“We encourage community members to continue to provide their perspective on this issue,” he said.

Requiring criminal and child abuse clearances was recommended as part of the district’s security initiative, but the proposed policy drew fire from representatives of parent-teacher groups who have a hard time getting enough volunteers for events in the schools.

The district had proposed having volunteers receive criminal background and child abuse clearances annually through a service that charges $16.95. Currently, groups such as the marching band require clearances for chaperones, but those clearances are good for three years for a cost of $20.

“I recommend you look at other options,” said resident John Harrison. Mr. Harrison gave board members a list of more than 100 Pennsylvania school districts that use Raptor Technologies’ system that scans drivers’ licenses for an immediate, nationwide background check.

Mr. Harrison said 18 local school districts, including North Hills and Shaler Area, use the Raptor system, checking each visitor who comes into the schools each day.

“Pennsylvania background checks are great if you are from Pennsylvania,” he said, but not if you have moved here from another state. Also, he said, a typical background check is “good for that day going backward.”

The Raptor system costs $1,600 for each location.

Allyson Minton, secretary of the McKnight Elementary Parent-Faculty Association, said it takes 495 volunteers to put on McKnight’s three holiday parties, and it is hard to fill those spots.

The school also uses parent volunteers for special learning days, such as Colonial Day, to assist the kindergarten teachers, help reshelve books in the library, help set up the art show and chaperone field trips.

Mrs. Minton said district officials should consider exempting parents who volunteer only once or twice a year, and should phase in the policy for volunteers who are not left alone with children.

In other action, the board approved a three-year purchase of software from Blackboard Inc.

The software provides for online course delivery, content management, mobile learning app, access to Web conferencing and unlimited tech support.

Blackboard would allow teachers to create an “online presence” for classes so students can receive materials for class by logging in and can check assignments if absent.

“It's commonly used in higher ed, and this better prepares our students to be better prepared when they hit that environment,” said Kathy Curran, coordinator of academic technology and instructional services.

Board member Tara Fisher, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, said Blackboard is a “one stop shop” for teachers and students.

“My experience with it has been extremely positive,” she said.

Cost of the program is $22,000 in 2014-15; $43,570 in 2015-16; and $45,281 in 2016-17.

Board member Joseph Greenberg said he was concerned that the software wouldn’t be utilized to its full potential.

“If I look at the website today, I am constantly disappointed and embarrassed by how outdated the links are and things posted by teachers. There are spelling words from 2012 that haven't been updated in years,” he said. “How can we assure that we have teachers update it?”

Ms. Curran said many secondary teachers have to “re-teach” lessons because students miss class because of sports or other activities. With Blackboard, they can post the lessons online.

“Those pieces are very attractive to teachers,” she said. “It gives them a stronger motivation to keep that content current.”

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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