Shawnee Mission gets rid of fingerprints in background checks of school volunteers

SHAWNEE, Kan. -- Volunteers from the community are a big help for schools and teachers, but they have to be screened to make sure they're fit to be in schools.

The Shawnee Mission School District just voted to change the way they background check potential volunteers, and it's a decision that some are uncertain about.

In the past, volunteers had to be fingerprinted as part of their background checks. But now they don't have to take that step.

There are more than 2,000 volunteers in the Shawnee Mission School District, eager to help students and teacher. Heather Sims is one of them.

"It’s very important to have those bodies in the building because it lets teachers worry about teaching, not 'I need to spend an hour or two hours at the copy machine,' when she could be be in the classroom researching a strategy," said Sims, Crestview Elementary PTA's president.

Sims has two daughters in school and went through Shawnee Mission's old fingerprint background check system done through the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

"My fingerprints went really smoothly," Sims said. "One roll each. But other people were there for 20 minutes."

Hurdles like that are part of the reason why the Shawnee Mission School District voted to switch to a different background check system for volunteers. They'll use Validity Screening Solutions. That system doesn't require fingerprints.

"We don’t want to make the process of becoming a volunteer any more cumbersome than it needs to be," said David Smith, a spokesperson for the district.

The Validity background checks can be done online, and the district gets results back in just two days. There's about 500 people in the volunteer backlog who will go through the new process.

"My understanding is that this is actually a more in-depth screening, so we will get more substantial results from it, and that will be good for safety," Smith said.

A study done by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit that looks at social and economic policies, compared fingerprint background checks by the FBI and non-fingerprint background checks done commercially, like Validity.

It found they both have limitations.

Fingerprints can't be faked, but there's sometimes a delay in local law enforcement reporting records. Commercial background checks are faster and easier for the consumer, but there's an increased risk for false positive information, according to the study.

"We are very confident that nobody who shouldn’t be with kids will get in," Smith said.

Parents just want that's best for the kids.

"I would like to know what that entails before just saying, 'Let’s get rid of the fingerprints,'" Sims said.

The district said the new background checks will be a little less expensive than the old system, so it will save a little money -- but nothing significant.

FOX4 checked with some of the other school districts in the metro to learn how their volunteers are background checked.

In Lee's Summit, background checks are done through the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Missouri Department of Social Services. No fingerprints are required unless the person is a coach.

Hickman Mills uses a system called Raptor Visitor Management. That system doesn't use fingerprints either.