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.

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