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Schools ax mentor aspect of senior projects in response to background checks

"No good deed goes unpunished.” Those were the words of Rep. Joseph McNamara concerning legislation he introduced he believed would strengthen school mentor programs. Now, to his dismay, the law is being cited as the reason Warwick seniors are being told to stop working with mentors who are assisting them with their Graduation by Proficiency projects.

About 750 Warwick seniors were sent a directive on Monday advising them, “Effective today, Oct. 1, all face-to-face-contact with your mentor stops.”

Under an amendment to state law, not only are national and state criminal background checks required of teachers, but also of “any person who seeks to participate in any mentoring program whereby the individual shall be working with a student or students as a mentor or in a mentoring situation.”

Warwick has not conducted any criminal background checks of mentors since it required seniors to complete a project involving 15 hours of mentoring to graduate six years ago. And to do so at this point, said director of secondary education Dennis Mullen, would incur an expense the department hasn’t budgeted. The checks cost $36, as done by Warwick Police and $40 by the Attorney General and would collectively cost the department more than $26,000.

“I would rather see the money go to improve the program rather than defend it,” said Mullen.

But without mentors, a major component of the senior project is gone, and a program that has gained momentum after overcoming much student resistance must be altered.

“This is going to diminish the quality of the program,” said acting superintendent Richard D’Agostino.

There’s agreement from Graduation by Proficiency coordinators at each of the three high schools and the overall coordinator of the program, Denise Bilodeau. Coordinators worry about the impact on students who must now, in many cases, revise their projects to account for the absence of mentor relationships. Approximately 20 percent of the seniors, who started their projects during the summer months and have already completed 15 hours of mentoring, will not be affected. The others have options, including a continued correspondence with their mentors by school department email and, in the case where mentor contact has not been established, an interview process. This is to be verified through printed emails.

“It’s tough for the kids,” says Toll Gate coordinator Frederick Schweizer. He said there were only a handful of the school’s 220 seniors whose projects have not already gained approval and now all of them must revise their projects.

“All of a sudden they’re on this island alone,” Schweizer said. Pilgrim coordinator Susan Cranston said consideration was given to students with mentors who have had background checks to continue, but they decided that would create an un-level playing field.

“This is the fairest way,” she said.

Until this point, parents vetted the mentors, said Vets coordinator Chip McGair. He said background checks didn’t seem necessary but, now that it’s law, they have no choice.

“The truth is we don’t want to break the law,” he said. Without mentors, he said, the process will be lengthened, “but we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the students.”

Warwick apparently brought the law to the attention of the Rhode Island Department of Education. In response, acting commissioner of education David V. Abbott issued a memo that the law applied only to mentors in schools. Background checks of mentors working with seniors outside were not required. In part, the memo says the law applies to mentoring that “takes place on school property during school time. Mentors involved in this type of arrangement will need to undergo a national and state criminal-background check.”Rosemary Healey, Warwick schools human resources director and legal counsel, didn’t see it that way. The law makes no specific reference to mentors in or out of school. In fact, the legislation goes beyond mentors and says all “volunteers with a private or public school department” who have not volunteered during the previous 12 months with a school are also required to have background checks.

Healey could not be reached for comment, but Mullen said if Warwick were to continue, it would be breaking the law.

Asked why the department didn’t simply continue the program, since the law carries no penalty and the state offers an explanation that would exempt mentors for the graduation by proficiency program, Mullen said that doesn’t remove the liability. Asked yesterday if the elimination of the mentoring component jeopardized state approval of the Warwick program, RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger said, “We have not made any decisions on this matter, and we would expect that the problem can be worked out at the district level.”

The decision to end face-to-face contact with mentors came after a meeting last week attended by coordinators, high school principals and other school administrators. McNamara also attended. McNamara introduced the bill at the request of the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership.

A reason the partnership pushed for the legislation, explains CEO Arlene McNulty, is because it was unable to get federal background checks on mentors that are not federal employees. The partnership matches about 200 mentors with Warwick students who have been identified by a parent, teacher or principal as needing a role model. Mentors visit students for one hour each week at school. These mentors have undergone local background checks and the partnership was looking for the added assurance of federal checks.

The intent was not to impact mentors working with seniors on their graduation projects, says McNulty. Instead, she said, it was aimed at mentors who have a longer-term relationship with students. A number of the students in the Warwick program have had the same mentor from elementary school through high school. There have been no incidents of mentors abusing students in Warwick or anywhere else in the state, McNulty said.

She said the partnership finds means of subsidizing background checks and in some cases mentors pay for them.

McNamara, who gained the support of Warwick Senators William Walaska, Erin Lynch and Michael McCaffrey to get the bill through the Senate, said he intends to introduce legislation in the opening days of the session to amend the legislation to make it similar to that in Massachusetts. He said Massachusetts background checks are required of any individual volunteer in a school that is not under the direct supervision of certified school personnel.

“When you have attorneys running a school department, sometimes they fail to look at the larger picture,” he said.

He said policies to protect students should be left up to school departments.


Comments
7 comments on this item

Mr. McNamara, I take offense to your last comment that the attorneys at the school department run the school and fail to look at the big picture. Here is the real "big picture". If the schools do not follow the laws, you create, and all of the mandates set by the state we will be in jeopardy of losing State funding. If this happens, we will be the next Central Falls or Woonsocket. If you would be so kind as to contact members of the education system prior to putting forth bills on education, debacles like the one created by this new law can be avoided. I know you put this forward to help keep kids safe and I appreciate your efforts. It does seem that you consulted with the RI Mentoring Partnership extensively to help them but you did not consider all of your constituents before the final passage. Schools might also be able to pay for the mentoring background checks if the State Legislature had not allowed the city to cut funding 5% for the last few years to the tune of $6+ million dollars. The State budget was balanced on the backs of the taxpayers at the expense of the education of our students. They deserve better than this. Please do not deflect your lack of foresight towards the attorneys who are protecting the schools so we can continue to educate the students. Thank you, Patrick Maloney

I have just found this additional information online about the RI Mentoring Program. The RI Mentoring program is a 501c3 program. The RI Mentoring Program is a part of the Feinstein Mentor Training Program. Here is a link to their public information:

http://www.zoominfo.com/#!search/profile/company?companyId=22758518&targetid=profile

It is a Warwick RI company that resides at:

Feinstein Mentor Training Institute

3296 Post Road

Warwick, Rhode Island 02886

United States map

According to ZoomInfo.com this company has revenue between $10 Million and $25 Million and has between 50 and 100 employees.

According to the Warwick Beacon Article, the cost of continuing the mentoring for our students this year will be approximately $26,000. I wonder if the institute would be willing to foot the bill for this additional cost?

"No good deed goes unpunished" and the help the RI Mentoring Partnership, a non-profit, provides has revenue generating between $10 and $25 Million. The "partnership" certainly does not seem to be punished but our students seem to be now.

Patrick Maloney

LETS NOT PLAY PASS THE BLAME!!!! My daughter is a senior at pilgrim so when this was brought to my attention i started making phone calls. 1st to the school (big surprise) they had no answers for me. 2nd to the superintendt office (wow what do you know) again they have no answers, finally called the state house, where after many transfers to this one & that one i actually got a real answer!!! AN EMAIL WAS SENT TO WARWICK SCHOOL DEPARTMENT TO ADDRESS THIS NEW LAW....i was sent a copy of the email and in it (so clear a 4th grader could understand) ANY PERSON ACTING AS A MENTOR ON SCHOOL PROPERTY DURING SCHOOL HOURS MUST HAVE A BCI!!!! now correct me if im worng but these seniors go out & find a mentor, submit a proposal, get approved, begin the "fieldwork" and now are told "Nope sorry you cant do that anymore" ALL FIELDWORK IS DONE AT THE MENTORS PLACE OF BUSINESS!!! someone explain why this attorney for warwick is misunderstanding this law? I WOULD LOVE SOME ANSWERS...... oh and FYI vets high school will be having a "senior project info meeting" at 6pm on thursday oct.11....

Angrymother,

Here is a link to the law: http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/BillText12/HouseText12/H7077.pdf

"16-2-18.1. Criminal records review. -- (a) Any person seeking employment with a private school or public school department who has not previously been employed by a private school or public school department in Rhode Island during the past twelve (12) months, as well as

any person who seeks to participate in any mentoring program whereby the individual shall be working with a student or students as a mentor or in a mentoring situation, shall undergo a national and state criminal background check"

No where in this law does it specify that if the mentoring takes place at a business or not on school grounds that the mentor is exempt from the law. Our lawyer is stating the law exactly as it was written. This is not a situation of passing the blame. It is a law, the law must be followed or Warwick will potentially lose $36+ Million of state funding, additionally without the state and federal background check, the schools can not be sure there is not a risk to the student. I believe the original intent of the law was to protect the students.

Feel free to email me, maloneyp@warwickschools.org. I have fielded 20+ phone calls and emails. I am aware of what is going on and have had discussions with the superintendent and Director of Secondary Ed regarding the situation and how it is being handled. Additional information is going out to the students. I have also asked that all updates be posted on the Warwick Schools website. www.warwickschools.org. If a student already completed the mentoring portion, they will be able to use it and will get credit for it. If a student has completed 1+ hours of mentoring time, they will be allow to present what they have. If a student has not yet begun any mentoring, they can not have a mentor for the project. This information will be posted on the Warwick Schools site as well.

I was told tonight that there are 13 districts with a Senior Project with a mentor component. We are not in this alone. We are working on getting the correct information and putting it out as quickly as possible.

Patrick Maloney

how is it then that when i contacted the state office for elem & secondary education i was forwarded the exact email everyone at the school received and in it,it says '"any mentor working IN the school or during school hours must have a bci"..................ALSO IVE JUST FOUND OUT THAT THURS 10/11/12 THEY ARE HOLDING A PARENTS INFO MEETING AT 6PM IN VETERANS HIGH SHCHOOL!!!

Hi again. When contacting the RI Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, you are contacting RIDE, the RI Department of Education (RIDE). They are giving you their interpretation of the law. RIDE may interpret a law as they want to but their interpretation does not supersede the law. An email from the department of Education does not override the law. Again, no where in this law does it specify that if the mentoring takes place at a business or not on school grounds that the mentor is exempt from the law.

I am aware that there are planned meetings with parents to talk exactly about the situation. The school has received many questions and they probably feel it is better to have a meeting and answer all the questions at once rather then answer one at a time. I am sure the Beacon will be there and the information will be posted on the School website. It is probably best to attend, if possible, so you can have the rest of your questions answered and hear them directly from the source.

Patrick Maloney

maloneyp@warwickschools.org

Attorney Maloney, I think it is wonderful that you have spoken out and I wish there were more. Angryparent had a great point about many of our legislative bills that are passed are "quick" and "without Expert weigh-in". I have heard these comments before when crafting legislation concerning Sex Offenders and find the police or educators are often not privy to weighing in which is short sighted.

I never liked the $5 State BCI License check and have pushed for the $35 BCI Federal fingerprint check. The issue that is bothersome is that the State was a 1 time check for the fee over the time your child went to school while you volunteered. Here, they are stating it must be yearly. Because this check is tied in to the USA database and your fingerprint doesn't change, why are we having to do this yearly? Obviously money! It is a shame to extort money yearly vs. 1 time fee. Understandably your license could change yearly, however they only required a State check $5 and you could have a record in every other state but it wouldn't have been caught under this type of check.

I have researched a bit on this and other states use a CORI/SORI volunteer check is the common check in other states and lasts for 2 yrs. I need to write to legislators that implemented and inquire to comparisons and other questions, but the problem with this is they RARELY ever respond. I can't imagine they get that many constituent letters.

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