Will Operation Beacon see the light for school volunteers?

We all know THAT parent: The one who chaperones the field trips, knows all the kids’ names in the entire grade and actually bakes the cookies for the class party.

That would not be me. I do have a fond memories of hanging out in my children’s classrooms when they were little, reading Beatrix Potter at circle time and making sure no one ate the paste (it tastes like sour milk and gasoline, in case you’re wondering.)

But my nerves can’t really handle upwards of 25 children’s voices in one room, so I now serve my kids’ schools in other ways, like buying their teachers wine at Christmas.

Frankly, I think anyone who wants to volunteer in their child’s public school deserves a trophy, as long as they’re not a sex offender or trying to convert anyone into a cult.

Our schools need all the support they can get—and I’m not talking money: In spite of the fact that the U.S. spends more per pupil than almost any other developed country, American students now rank 40th in math in the world, according to the recent Program for International Student Assessment report.

What schools really need are engaged grown-ups who aren’t on the payroll. Research shows that schools with involved parents not only have higher test scores but the students have better social skills and are more likely to go to college.

So it seems like the more volunteers, the better, and that’s surely why the Savannah-Chatham Public School System launched the Operation Beacon Volunteer Program last year. But the way SCCPSS is currently vetting applicants to the program could be driving away them away.

Kristy Edenfield is THAT parent. Many in the community know her as indefatigable organizer behind the Savannah Taking Action for Resistance Facebook page and other causes, but before that, she was decorating the gym for the school dance and baking potatoes for the Savannah Arts Academy theater kids and rallying the fundraisers for class trips.

And unlike some of us slacker moms, I’m pretty sure she’s never tried to pass off a plate of cookies from Publix as homemade.

Yet in spite of her constant presence and possession of a certificate declaring her Volunteer of the Year by her son’s middle school, Kristy has been rejected from Operation Beacon—and subsequently banned from volunteering at school at all.

SCCPSS officials say it’s about policy: The program has three levels of interactions for potential volunteers, beginning with Tier I, which includes manning the register at athletic games and book fairs and volunteering at other events where there is a limited interaction with students.

Tier II activities allow closer proximity with kids, like helping with class parties and field days but always under the supervision of a teacher. Applicants to Tier I and II are checked against the national and local sex offender registries and other basic filters to make sure they’re not monsters.

Tier III, however, the level you’d apply for if you wanted to help coach the soccer team or chaperone the bus to the science fair, requires the same background check as a SCCPSS employee, and anyone with a record of a felony or certain misdemeanors are disqualified from the entire program.

That’s perfectly reasonable to ensure our children’s safety—until you see that the list of misdemeanors includes disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, and possession of drug-related objects, minor offenses often committed in one’s younger and dumber years that ought not follow an upstanding citizen around their entire lives.

All joking aside about how there are certain city council members who couldn’t become a Tier III volunteer, these standards as they are are a barrier that precludes some really fine people from ever being able to contribute to their children’s school.

Kristy can no longer make the rest of us look like loafers because of a non-violent misdemeanor on her record, an isolated incident that required a small fine and community service, which she fulfilled.

After she applied for Tier III status and was rejected, Tiers I and II were also revoked, leaving several projects and fundraisers without her leadership.

She’s not alone. I spoke with several other SCCPSS parents who have been denied because of non-violent misdemeanors from 15, even 20 years ago.

“Jack” has kids in sixth and third grade and has been volunteering in their classrooms since they were in preschool.

He signed up for Operation Beacon the week it was rolled out and unaware of the tier system, he applied for the highest access since he already chaperoned field trips and helped out with school lunches.

Unfortunately, back in 1995, Jack was arrested for selling LSD at a Dead show, long before he’d even met his wife or ever thought he’d be doing something as square as making finger puppets with a bunch of six year-olds.

Yet it’s enough for him to be banned from certain school activities.

“The worst thing is, I know the school constantly needs volunteers,” he told me sadly. “The teachers all know me, the office staff—to not be allowed to be part of your kids’ education is not cool.”

Other parents have been rejected for forging a check once or a shoplifting charge, and many have decided to not apply at all rather than be subject to an archaeological dig of their pasts. (SCCPSS assures that all personal information is confidential.)

Worse, it seems like Title I schools—our poorest, which would benefit the most from parental and grandparental involvement—would have an even smaller pool of qualified candidates. (While it is not fair or appropriate to make assumptions, the connection between poverty and prison is well-documented.)

Mo Pollard owns a local contracting company and has ten grandkids in public schools. He’s well-known on the Westside for his annual back-to-school drive that brings school supplies and uniform vouchers to hundreds of students, but he says he wouldn’t bother applying to Operation Beacon because he was busted for drug trafficking when he was 20.

“I’m against predators in school and people with domestic violence records, but when you take a man who had a minor drug charge 15 or 30 year ago who is now successful and wants to show kids what they can be but he can’t because he’s still marked a criminal by the schools, we are doing a major disservice to our community,” says Mo.

“I was incarcerated once, but I got my diploma, I have a family, I’ve paid my dues. I’ve worked with the police and law enforcement, but I’d be rejected outright from being in class with my grandkids.”

SCCPSS officials point out that the vast majority of the 791 Tier III applicants have cleared—at least 150 of them part of the Skidaway Island-based group L.O.V.E. Mentors—and that the district uses the same standard for reviewing volunteer applications as the established Board Policy for the hiring of employees.

At the Jan. 11 school board meeting, however, there was confusion on whether it was board policy dictating the rejections or the discretion of Superintendent Ann Levett’s office.

“This is the first time I’m seeing this list,” said District 1 board member Julie Wade of the two pages of disqualifying offenses that she described as discriminatory and discouraging. “Considering we have 37,000 students in this school district, 791 applicants speaks volumes. Many people are reluctant to do this.”

School Board president Jolene Byrne said simply, “We didn’t vote for this.”

Superintendent Levett was quick to defend the value of the program and promised changes to make it more inclusive.

“I’m always open to wise counsel,” she said. “In every roll out there are challenges. Staff and I will look at this and bring you something you can live with.”

Kristy was also at the meeting but didn’t approach the board on the advice of her attorney. Her son, Luke, spoke passionately to the board about immediate solutions.

“She requested an appeal and was denied, despite volunteering for 15 years,” pleaded the SAA junior.

“I hope the board will schedule a hearing for her and reinstate her status as Tier II.”

I hope so, too, because our schools need more volunteers, and our kids need to learn that small mistakes don’t cancel out our contributions to our community.

Plus, I really don’t want to bake 65 potatoes to feed the cast of the upcoming musical.



Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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