News & Updates

More Schools Make Background Checks a Prerequisite to Volunteering

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Date: May – June, 2017

Shrinking budgets and other organizational pressures mean many schools increasingly rely on their volunteers to perform essential functions inside and outside the classroom, yet inconsistent vetting of these volunteers may expose schools to unintended risk – as recent headlines attest. While laws and policies regarding criminal background checks for school volunteers are different for every state and school district, screening is fast becoming a prerequisite to volunteering at schools throughout the country.

Earlier this year, a USA Today Network investigation revealed significant flaws in the way many schools screen teachers, and more than 20 states received a D or F grade for their background check practices. The same issues that hinder the effectiveness of teacher screening also plague volunteer background checks, including inadequate screening methods and insufficient information resources.

“Maintaining a physically and emotionally safe environment for students, teachers and staff is obviously a priority for organizations with an education mission,” says Katie Zwetzig, executive director of Sterling Volunteers. “It’s important that school administrators understand what constitutes a comprehensive, quality background check and the steps they should take to minimize potential risk.”

Screening should cover all volunteers even if they are working with an organization on a temporary basis. The type of screen may vary based on the expected length of the volunteer service and the amount of contact with students. For more thorough background checks, Sterling Volunteers advises schools to:

Use the Most Comprehensive Sex Offender Search

Not all sex offender databases are created equal. In fact, there’s only one search that schools should be using. The only comprehensive search available in the country, the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) contains national sex offender data from sources such as the U.S. Department of Justice and state, territorial and tribal governments. Dependence on any other sex offender database may leave a school exposed to unnecessary risk.

Conduct Multiple Searches

The biggest mistake that organizations make when conducting criminal record checks is relying too heavily on one source of information. There is no single database that contains every criminal record, not even the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Using multiple searches provides a more thorough look into a volunteer’s criminal past and fills in as many gaps as possible since criminal records reside within multiple data sources. Along with the NSOPW sex offender search, background checks should search the primary source of information (the county or state courthouse), current addresses and address history, and alias and maiden names. Depending on a volunteer’s role, they may also include motor vehicle record checks (MVRs), credit checks and reference checks.

Don’t Over-Rely on Fingerprint Checks

Fingerprint checks may be required in certain situations; however, the notion that they are the most reliable way to conduct criminal record checks is a fallacy. Fingerprint checks query the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which is based on voluntary submission of records by each state. The records are often flawed, inaccurate and missing critical information. As noted above, for a more reliable search, organizations should use a combination of county and state searches based on address history, nationwide databases and NSOPW.

Identify Other Areas of Your School That Are Vulnerable

Students quite obviously represent a school’s most vulnerable population and ensuring their safety is paramount. However, they may not be the only vulnerability in an organization. Background checks also protect a school’s assets and reputation. Any individual who handles finances, personally identifiable information (PII) or technology, or makes important decisions on behalf of a school should also be screened.

Rescreen Volunteers Regularly

Once a school has screened a volunteer, it should not assume that means they are clear of criminal history forever. Volunteers need to be rescreened to ensure the organization has the latest information about their potential criminal history. Sterling Volunteers recommends rescreening volunteers annually.

About Sterling Volunteers

Sterling Volunteers helps nonprofit organizations gain confidence in the volunteers working with those they serve by delivering thorough, compliant background checks. By enabling volunteers to order, manage and share their background checks via a secure online platform, we create a community of vetted volunteers and help nonprofit organizations save time and money. Our extensive expertise in screening and compliance best practices helps clients recruit the best volunteers in order to maintain a safe environment and positive reputation. Sterling Volunteers is backed by Sterling, the world’s largest background screening company and partnered with Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. Visit

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