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Hernando school district may relax background checks

Published:   |   Updated: January 12, 2014 at 12:33 PM

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BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County School Board members on Tuesday will discuss - and possibly vote on - whether to approve a protocol of less-stringent criminal background checks for district volunteers and contractors.

The board's policy on background checks is more restrictive than one outlined by the state Legislature, and board members late last year indicated they favored aligning Hernando's policy with the state's.

Florida law proclaims non-instructional contractors will be denied access to school grounds when children are on campus if the contractors have convictions for murder, kidnapping or crimes related to terrorism, incest, lewd or indecent exposure, sexual misconduct, child abuse, aggravated child abuse or neglect - or if they are registered sex offenders.

Hernando's current school board policy additionally prohibits access to school grounds by those convicted of some nonviolent misdemeanor and felony convictions, said Safety and Security Coordinator Mario Littman. Those include misdemeanor and felony drug offenses and two or more convictions of drunken driving.

If board members vote to exclude the additional convictions from their policy on background checks, Littman said, it would be a significant change.

"They're taking away all the misdemeanors, and (state law) is specific to felonies, typically violent felonies," Littman said.

"Somebody with a felony drug offense, I couldn't bounce them out of the district," he said, if the measure passes.

State law requires districts conduct criminal background checks every five years.

Discussion about the board's policy began this summer before Littman took over as safety and security coordinator, and after a long-time volunteer and coach with the district, Clarence Clark, showed prior convictions for grand theft and forgery during a three-tier criminal background screen.

Clark runs a youth summer camp program through Shiloh Problem Solvers, which is a community partner with the Hernando County school system.

Clark previously described the camp as an opportunity to teach students social and career skills, and build more stable and successful community leaders.

The district's former safety and security coordinator, Barry Crowley, who is now retired, suggested revoking Clark's ability to volunteer with the district.

Clark spoke publicly against the board's criminal background screen policy at a recent board meeting, as did dozens of students and parents of students who Clark has mentored.

All urged the board to revise the policy's language to allow more discretion when deciding to disqualify a volunteer.

School board members will discuss a revised draft of the policy at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the district's office, and potentially will vote on the matter that evening at their regular 7 p.m. board meeting.

The 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by John Couey in Citrus County was the catalyst for the more extensive statewide criminal background checks as well as improved registration and monitoring of sex offenders, and enhanced criminal sentencing guidelines for sex offenses.

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