St. Rita to screen students’ parents; School policy requires background checks on all as safety measure

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 35A

If you want your child to attend St. Rita Catholic School this fall, be prepared to answer a few tough questions.

For the first time, the northern Dallas school is asking all of its parents to undergo a background check before the school year starts. Other area Catholic schools are considering a similar move.

“We want to make sure the school environment is as secure as it can be,” said Elena Hines, St. Rita’s principal.

Kenneth Trump, a national expert in school safety programs, said he hadn’t heard of a public or private school going as far as St. Rita is.

“It sounds like they’re taking it to the next level,” said Mr. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. “Lots of private schools do an informal screening of parents, but it’s not commonly phrased from a school safety perspective.”

Dr. Hines said the heightened security is partially in response to recent revelations of child molestation by Catholic priests. But it’s also meant to ease the concerns all parents have about their young children at school.

“If we have every parent have a background check, then every other parent will know their child will be safe,” said Charles LeBlanc, director of schools for the Dallas Diocese.

Since the mid-1990s, St. Rita has required fingerprint-based background checks for all school volunteers who spend time with children. Dr. Hines said that included less than one-third of parents last year. Volunteers are fingerprinted again every five years to recheck for criminal records.

Under the new policy, those volunteers would still be fingerprinted. But now Dr. Hines said all other parents will be asked to undergo a separate, “very thorough” screening process – even if they never plan to volunteer for the school.

Parents will have their names checked against the contents of state criminal databases. They won’t be fingerprinted, but school staff will check three personal references for each parent. Parents will then attend a 31/2-hour training session on “what is appropriate behavior with children, what’s inappropriate, and how you can be alert to watch for trouble,” Dr. Hines said.

The new screening is being required of all new parents at the school and strongly encouraged of all other parents. In addition, new parents will have to sit down for an interview with a member of the school’s safety committee.

“I think the times call for us to clamp down on security some,” said Shawn Young, a former parents’ club president whose children have attended St. Rita for the last 12 years. “Every parent comes in contact with someone else’s child some time or another, so it makes sense to check everyone.”

After the recent slew of molestation revelations within the Catholic Church, Dr. Hines said, it made sense to toughen the requirements. “Because of everything that came to light this year, it just made this something for us to do to be certain, absolutely certain that we had covered all our bases,” she said.

Dr. Hines said since the K-8 school began fingerprinting seven or eight years ago, “about two” people have been found to have backgrounds that kept them from being appropriate school volunteers.

Because they can be more selective in whom they admit, nonpublic schools are often more stringent in setting requirements for parents. “Most public schools I deal with wish they had some of these same tools at hand to use,” Mr. Trump said.

Dr. Hines said she didn’t know how much the new policies would cost, but it will likely be a substantial investment for the 660-student campus. Fingerprint background checks of state and federal databases cost about $40 per person; checks without fingerprints are available for lower costs from private vendors. Just checking the references of all St. Rita parents will tax the school’s staff, she said.

“The price is certainly worth it for the security,” she said. “We wanted to be sure we were doing the best we could to avoid any harm to children.”

Security at St. Rita has been a concern in part because of its location, at the intersection of busy Inwood Road and the Dallas North Tollway.

In the last several years, St. Rita has tightened its building security substantially, keeping all doors but the front entrance locked and requiring visitors to sign in at the front office and wear a identification badge. Once they sign in, visitors have to be buzzed into a secure set of interior doors before they reach classroom areas.

Dr. Hines said parental reaction to the new policy has been positive.

“Changes like the doors were difficult for some parents to accept,” said parent Anne O’Brien. “But I respect that they’re trying to do everything they can. This may be a bit farther than necessary, but they’ll find a happy medium between too strict and too loose.”

Dr. LeBlanc said the diocese sets broad rules for school security, including the volunteer fingerprinting requirement, but most decisions are left up to individual campuses. He said other area Catholic schools had been discussing instituting a similar requirement for the new school year, but he did not know if any other than St. Rita were following through.