Somers-Lakeside schools to review policy on sex offenders

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A parent on the Montana sex-offender registry who volunteered in a Lakeside Elementary classroom to help with a holiday activity has raised concerns and led the Somers-Lakeside School District to review its policy.

At a Jan. 22 board meeting, the school board looked at policies on registered sex offenders (policy 4550); fingerprints and criminal background investigations (policy 5122); and volunteers (policy 5430). The board will continue to look at the policies regarding volunteers and fingerprints/background checks during a work session at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, at Somers Middle School.

Currently, fingerprints and background checks are required for volunteers who have unsupervised access to students. The background-investigation policy refers to unsupervised contact that occurs on a “regular” basis, while the volunteer policy does not.

Price said trustees are looking for more clarity in the two policies such as what “unsupervised access” encompass and which volunteers should be required to complete background checks. Currently, a volunteer registration application (5122F2) defines “unsupervised” simply as “without a Somers School District employee present.”

Often, school districts adopt, with some modification, model policies created by the Montana School Boards Association, which is the case in Somers-Lakeside School District.

Parents on the sex-offender registry whose victim in an offense was a minor and whose children are enrolled in the district do have rights, Somers-Lakeside Superintendent Joe Price said.

In general, such a parent can only drop off and pick up his or her child at school and attend parent-teacher conferences, but “... the parent is prohibited from being in any part of the school building except the main office.”

Price said the parent in question had been in a classroom helping out with a holiday activity and was not a regular volunteer.

“Regardless, as a registered offender, he should not have been in the classroom. I believe we have corrected that,” Price said.

Lakeside Elementary Principal John Thies agreed. Thies said he did not learn that the parent had been in a classroom among students until after he returned from winter break. He said other adults were in the classroom at the time and the parent in question wasn’t alone with children.

While district policy states that it is not an employee’s duty to screen the sex-offender registry to find out if individuals or parents coming onto school premises are registered sex offenders, once an administrator becomes aware of an individual’s registered status, policy provisions should come into play.

Thies learned about the parent’s status as a registered sex offender a couple of years ago and reportedly went over restrictions and expectations with the parent. In addition, each year since then, teachers have been made aware of the situation, Thies said, but felt he made the mistake of not reminding staff of school district policy.

As a father and grandparent, Thies said he understands the concerns. While he is troubled the incident occurred, it has brought to light areas the elementary school and district can improve upon. One of those areas is ensuring staff understand school district policy thoroughly.

“We’re taking extra steps by meeting regularly to review policies to minimize the likelihood of this happening again for the safety of our students,” Thies said, referring to weekly or bi-weekly meetings between administrators.

The incident has also shown that the elementary school can be more consistent in having prospective volunteers complete proper forms such as the district’s volunteer application.

There is also a fee attached to background checks and fingerprinting, which Thies anticipates will result in fewer volunteers. School districts have the option to pay for the fees or pass on the cost to a volunteer. The cost for a federal fingerprint-based check for volunteers is $23.25, according to the Montana Department of Justice.

To view Somers-Lakeside School District policies visit http://www.somersdist29.org.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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