Beaufort News

Beaufort County schools start tougher volunteer screening

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The Beaufort County School District is using new procedures to screen prospective volunteers, part of changes adopted after several incidents last school year in which volunteers faced legal trouble.

The district has hired the Background Investigation Bureau to complete the screening and certify the volunteers. It conducts background checks that are more comprehensive than ones provided by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.

All volunteers clearing the background check will complete an orientation and review a handbook, which was created to make policies consistent among all 30 district schools.

"I think these improvements are much needed and are right on par with what we should be doing," said district community services coordinator Megan Meyer. "Volunteers are critical to what we do every day in our schools, but even more, we have to keep the students safe."

The district has decided to screen all volunteers. Originally, it considered screening only those who had frequent, close contact with students.

Visitors attending schools for a one-time event, such as an assembly or to monitor a test, will not be screened beyond the Lobby Guard system.

The cost of screening volunteers will be about $20 per check, according to risk manager Jennifer Staton. The district expects 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers to be screened every year, she said.

That would cost about $40,000 annually; the old system costs about $20,000, Staton said.

The volunteers will have to reapply and be rescreened every year, which is also new, Staton said. The district will also check all volunteers who were approved under the old system.

That system -- which had not been updated for several years -- used software that screened information only in several states.

Under the new system, the Background Investigation Bureau will conduct nationwide checks after potential volunteers apply directly to it, said Alice Walton, the district's head of human resources. It will search various sex-offender registries and incorporate an address history and aliases.

The district's handbook says minor infractions won't prohibit someone from volunteering. However, the handbook does not list examples of such infractions.

Meyer said those decisions will be made case by case. Some infractions will cause an automatic rejection, she said. Others will be sent to the district for further review. In that case, several district and school officials will meet with the applicants and decide whether they can volunteer.

Past procedures and software did not detect the felony arrest of volunteer Bluffton High School girls basketball assistant Alexandra Murphy, who allegedly fought with one of her players in February.

One other volunteer and several employees also have faced charges in recent months for inappropriate conduct with teenagers. However, none of those individuals had prior records in South Carolina.

"The most important concern for us was beefing up the process," Walton said. "We all know that things fall through the cracks, but we wanted to make sure our net was as tight as it could get, so there was no room for any second guessing."

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