A Cranston mother who sued Cranston Public Schools after she was barred from volunteering at school events because of felony drug convictions in her early 20s has settled with the district and can now volunteer, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced today.
Jessica Doyle (formerly Gianfrocco), was twice convicted for felony possession of heroin in her 20s but turned her life around after getting professional treatment. She is now a licensed chemical dependency professional and works at SSTARBirth, a residential substance abuse treatment program for pregnant and postpartum women and their children.
Her criminal record predates the birth of her daughter in 2003, the ACLU said, and she has been a devoted mother, serving as a team mom for her daughter's cheerleading team, volunteering at her day care and even has traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Congress about drug prevention funding as part of a Brown University program.
But Doyle was blocked from volunteering at Arlington Elementary School, where her daughter attends, after the district ran a background check.
"Although she provided numerous letters of recommendation, school officials denied her application because of her criminal record," said Stephen Brown, executive director of the RIACLU. "Although Doyle was allowed to be a member of the PTO, and ultimately one of its officers, she was still prevented from helping out at certain events involving the supervision of children."
The ACLU sued the school district on behalf of Doyle and argued the district's volunteer policy was "intrusive" and "unnecessary," noting that teachers themselves aren't disqualified from employment based on a criminal record or drug-related disability.
Under the settlment, Doyle can now volunteer at the school and the district agreed to revise its volunteer policy to prevent a similar situation from happening again by eliminating drug and other offenses as automatic disqualification from volunteering and requires the superintendent, if asked, to consider other factors when screening volunteers including date of conviction, rehabilitation and community involvements.
"This is the perfect example of why blanket prohibitions on school volunteers who have prior criminal conduct are totally unjustified. The City was never able to demonstrate any connection between passing a criminal background check and suitability to volunteer," said ACLU volunteer lawyer Carly Beauvais Iafrate. "This is a woman totally dedicated to her family, to her community, and to her recovery and who deserved to be able to extend that commitment to her daughter’s school.”
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “Stringent criminal records checks for volunteers prevent parents from actively participating in their children’s educational lives because of mistakes they made when they were younger. It is well- known that very positive benefits – to parent, child and school – flow from parental involvement in their children’s school activities. It is counter-productive to needlessly punish and stigmatize parents who have rehabilitated themselves. We are pleased that the school district recognized that.”
For Doyle, the settlement means a lot.
“This month, I volunteered for a viewing of The Polar Express at my daughter’s school," she said. "I was grateful to have this opportunity and excited to start making memories with her that will last a lifetime."