D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has ordered that all school volunteers, including parents, be fingerprinted to screen them for possible criminal records and that they also be tested for tuberculosis.
Details of Ackerman's directive, initially issued in August, are still being worked out, and it is unclear when the policy will be implemented. The new security measures, particularly the fingerprinting, are among the strictest in the nation's big cities and follow the arrests and convictions this year of three school employees and one volunteer on charges of child sexual abuse.
"We are having trouble with people taking advantage of young people," Ackerman said. "When I asked the question about security precautions, I learned we didn't have anything in place for volunteers. I don't know why people would fight that. It's to protect the children."
District school employees are fingerprinted, and school officials have long discussed extending fingerprinting to volunteers. Tuberculosis tests for school volunteers have been mandated for years by the D.C. Department of Health, and Ackerman said she will begin enforcing that requirement, even for parents who read to their child's class or help out in other ways.
The new policy has met with mixed reaction among parents and school activists. And some parents have complained about the directive's requirement that volunteers pay the estimated $25 fingerprinting costs, in addition to footing the bill for a TB test.
"Adequate measures need to be taken regarding who comes in and out of the schools," said Larry Gray, legislative director of the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations. "Well-meaning volunteers should be willing to submit to something like that."
Other activists said the fingerprinting requirement could intimidate many parents, including those who may have old police records, which would not disqualify them as volunteers but which they would prefer to keep confidential.
"It doesn't mesh with me to do this and then say we want parents to be involved with the schools and drop in any time," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of the Parents United advocacy group. "If they go ahead with this, it means they are going to have schools without very many volunteers."
Under the policy, Ackerman said, individual volunteers and those employed by organizations that provide volunteers for the schools must be fingerprinted. The firm or individual is expected to pay for this, but Ackerman said she wants to find money to pick up the cost for parent volunteers.
She said the policy would begin soon but did not give a date. Volunteers can have their prints taken at school headquarters, 825 North Capitol St. NE, or at their local police station.
Ackerman's directive includes the requirement that "entities or individuals" providing volunteer services take out liability insurance of no less than $5 million per claim and $10 million per incident. But Ackerman said the insurance requirement was never intended to apply to individual volunteers.
Some activists are concerned that small organizations without many resources will have to stop sending volunteers because they cannot afford the insurance.
The directive "is a legal document that shows a total disconnect between a superintendent's directive and the operations of a school," said Iris Toyer, a parent and a lawyer. "The drafters who were involved in this did not serve the superintendent well. . . . I think they have used a hammer to kill a gnat."
Most school systems require that teachers, principals and other staff members submit to fingerprinting, background checks and other security measures, but less is asked of the hundreds of thousands who volunteer in classrooms. Requiring tuberculosis tests is common, though many superintendents leave the enforcement to school principals--and it is often ignored.
"Now that tuberculosis has resurfaced as a public health threat, we are asking that people do it," Ackerman said.
No other school districts in the region require both a TB test and fingerprinting for volunteers. Loudoun and Fairfax counties ask for TB tests. Fairfax principals are encouraged to ask for and check references, particularly if they do not know the volunteers.
Neither Alexandria nor Arlington asks for fingerprints, but Arlington asks volunteers without a history in a particular school to authorize a background check. Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith began talks this week with his staff about whether to tighten security measures for volunteers. Howard County schools do not make background checks.
It's "not a bad idea but horribly impractical," said spokeswoman Patti Caplan.
Staff writers Victoria Benning, Jay Mathews, Linda Perlstein and Liz Seymour contributed to this report.