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Tiered Screening of Volunteers Has Serious Risks

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Many school districts and organizations have different levels of background screening for volunteers. This is often based on whether the volunteer is supervised or unsupervised.

Those that have only supervised access are often screened at a lower level, which may only include a sex offender check. In other cases the levels of screening may be based on an individual’s residency. As an example, a Pennsylvania law mandates statewide screening if an applicant reveals that he or she has been a resident of the state for at least 10 years.

What’s wrong with tiered screening?

Not Treating Everyone the Same Could Be Risky. Screening volunteers in a different manner for the same type of position could pose liability problems should the pool of applicants become aware that they were not treated in the same way.

Familiarity Breeds Trust

When kids see volunteers in their schools or other organizations on a regular basis, they began to see that figure as familiar and therefore trustworthy. While a volunteer may not be unsupervised with kids during class time or other events, that same child could see the individual at a park or the mall and believe them to be a trustworthy person. But what if he or she is not? What if that person was only screened using a sex offender registry and was cleared but had other criminal records? Here’s a real-life example.

A mom who volunteers at her son’s school regularly, including field trips and fall festivals, recently encountered another student from the school at the grocery store. The young student walked right up to her without hesitation and began chatting. She didn’t immediately recognize him because he isn’t in her son’s grade. He said to her, “I see you all the time at school. My name is Jimmy.” Although, he didn’t know her from anywhere else, he knew she was at his school often and must be a trustworthy person. Thankfully, she is. But not everyone has the best intentions.

Single Statewide Searches Aren’t Adequate

The only way a single statewide criminal record search would be sufficient is if a person never left that state; not even for a day. Since that typically doesn’t happen, why do certain states, boards and organizations feel comfortable mandating such a limited screen? What about the fact that many cities, counties and communities border other states! Consider this, one third of counties in Georgia border another state, yet almost all those school districts exclusively use a GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) search for the majority of their volunteers, only sometimes extending the search via the FBI database.

Also, as noted above in Pennsylvania, some states, organizations or schools will simply ask a volunteer applicant to state or certify their residence history. There is no check or verification that the information is accurate or true. Thus taking the word of someone who may be trying to hide an out of state conviction isn’t going to keep kids safe!


If you have the ability to determine your screening methodology, screen all volunteers the same! If you are regulated by specific laws, think about exceeding the minimum required. If the state law says you only have to screen in your state or run a sex offender, expand the scope to minimize risk and keep your organization, its people and assets safer!

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