Wednesday, January 22, 2014

School Employment Screenings

Let's talk about the school employment screenings, since I have mentioned being glad that the county is looking out for the safety of my children as well as everyone else's....So these screenings, are they 100% foolproof? Meaning, have they completely eliminated ALL incidents of abuse by teachers in our county?
Well, let's look at the first thing google came up with (though there were several more) protest....they were screened!
Yeah, they were screened, and deemed to be acceptable to allow around children because nothing came up on their background check.

Screening only prevents employment of people that have been caught for their offenses in the past. Screening volunteers as employees isn't going to magically make this screening more effective, but it does decrease the amount of parental involvement that a school can receive by banishing certain parents from helping out during most events.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

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The other F word

Sometimes when I am honest about my past, a hush falls over the group of moms and a look of uncertainty flitters across their faces. Most of them have usually known me for a while, and know that I am not scary or what you would typically first think of when you hear the word felon, and they recover quickly. And it IS like dropping an F-bomb, because there is a different reaction if I say "I made poor choices when I was younger" vs "I'm a convicted felon" Sometimes the second one is necessary though, like when people are trying to pressure me to vote or something that I can't legally do yet (as I mentioned in a previous post, I am filing for restoration of my rights and/or clemency this year) But even those who are thoroughly surprised usually at least act like they are fine with the new information after asking me a few questions about it to satisfy their curiosity.
My sweet girl’s birthday is next month. I’m probably allowed to drop off cookies or cupcakes or whatever in the front office for the class, but I won’t be able to walk them down the hall to the classroom door even just to wave or maybe say happy birthday, but certainly not to stay and help serve the cupcakes. We’ll do her party elsewhere, but that’s not my point.
My daughter is an exceptional reader. She’s in kindergarten, and has read all of the Ramona Quimby and Junie B. Jones books on her own so many times the backs are worn. She’s starting Ralph S. Mouse, she LOVES the Chronicles of Narnia, and we just started the Warriors series. Yes, I said she’s in kindergarten. Yes, I know. Her dad and I met in gifted class in elementary school and she has an awesome role model in her big sister, who always has her nose in a book.

It’s also book fair time. I’m starting to get emails asking for volunteers to help set up.  I’m pro-book, pro-reading, and happen to think I’m really good at engaging kids with that sort of thing, and that my daughter is proof of that. That isn’t what they’re even asking for help with though. It would be moving shelves and setting up books. I can’t help with this(or anything in the media center), because it is in the media center and there “might” be students present and I’m not an “approved dividend”. Never mind that there is a teacher/librarian in the media center at all times or that I’d be too busy moving boxes of books to give the kids my felon cooties anyway.
Conveniently, the way it is set up right now makes it almost impossible for anyone to find out about anyone else who can’t volunteer, since it is through the county office and not at the school itself. If anyone overhears anyone say anything to the school, they will hear them be reassured and directed to the dividend office. We’re supposed to be too ashamed of ourselves to start talking to other parents about it and learn that we aren’t alone. We’re supposed to feel too isolated to do anything about it so that we don’t bother, and give up and sit home without bringing this injustice to anyone’s attention. 

Well, I have no problem talking about my past.  I own my mistakes and acknowledge my history. I do not hide from it or shrink in embarrassment. It is who I was, but not who I am. I find most people to be understanding, sympathetic, and supportive of my predicament.  I hope to find other decent, hardworking parents that find themselves in a similar situation to let them know they may feel outcast, but they are not as alone as they think. (You’re not, I promise, see?)
If the school board is going to imply that I am less than adequate to volunteer, regardless of the length of time and the stacks of evidence and recommendation letters attesting to my hard work to change my lifestyle for the last DECADE, well, it’s a good thing I have a fabulous therapist because I won’t let them get to me. What I did twelve years ago (that still feels cool, to add another year) does not make me any less worthy of a normal experience and involvement with my child’s school and classroom.

Denying parents with criminal history over a decade old the chance to volunteer not only continues to punish us for our pasts beyond what the law requires, but punishes our children for it as well.

It just seems silly when I rarely see my own child during the volunteer projects I am allowed to help with. If I do it is when she stays after school with me to decorate the room or the door.  I can’t get there early and start before the end of school, which really kind of stinks since because of the traffic I have to arrive super early to be able to find somewhere to park. Then I sit either in my van or in the front office until school gets out and I am allowed to make my way to the classroom. Or I can come early in the morning (but not before 7:15 because that is when the office opens) but I have to be out the door by 7:25 when the bell rings. That gives me 10 minutes to set up for a party or whatever I need to do. Please don’t misunderstand, I am thankful for the ways I am allowed to help, but just think about how discouraging that is for a minute.
At the beginning of the year the school announced that you had to be a dividend to visit your child for lunch, and I will say that after I think the second time I contacted the dividend office and complained about this, the school changed this policy and no longer requires parents to be an approved volunteer to join their child for lunch. They do ask that we sit separately from the rest of our child's class though. That's fine by me, I'm very glad they changed it, since they often do "lunch with someone you love" and send home flyers asking family members to come join their child for lunch, and I had a lovely time when I was there. Pretty sure my little one did too! <3

I acknowledge and am thankful that they are trying to keep our schools safe, I do have two children in the system. But let's apply just a LITTLE bit of common sense here. When someone asks you to please look at them as a person, don't just repeat the same statute like a parrot. I understand what you are saying, I'm saying it is a bit harsh and to please look at it more closely.

By simply having different people repeat the same guidelines for screening of employees to me, you are telling me that you aren't looking at it any differently than you did the first time, because I'm not asking for a job, I'm just asking to be a volunteer.

vol-un-teer [vol-uh n-teer]
1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Who is a felon?

So what do you think of when you think of a convicted felon?

Do you picture the guys on Prison Break or Sons of Anarchy? Dirty, scruffy, tough people, running around committing crimes?

How about Tim Allen? Martha Stewart? The lady next door? The cashier at the grocery store?

Why is it that we automatically assume that a felon must look rough, dirty and unkempt? Or that if someone is clean and well put together that they aren’t? Is that better or worse than seeing a rough looking guy and assuming he’s a felon simply from his appearance? Because not everyone with a full beard and a leather jacket is a criminal. And not everyone in professional business attire isn’t.
I remember a bunch of police coming to our school in 5th grade. They had a giant posterboard with pictures of all types of various drugs. I remember them talking about drugs being bad for you and the effects they can have on your body…including death.
What I don’t remember is them talking about what happens as far as punishment if you get caught with drugs. The long term effects of making one idiotic decision.

As I sat in my handcuffs, crying in the back of the squad car while we rode to the jail, I realized I was in big trouble but still didn’t come close to understanding the enormity with which this would affect the rest of my life.  I had family members that had gotten arrested before, but none had ever stayed in jail longer than a night or two to my knowledge. 
I got through booking to learn that my bail had been set at $50,000. Surprisingly, there were books available and I was able to investigate my charges and learn the terrifying truth. It carries a 3 year minimum mandatory sentence. It took me a good three weeks to accept that I had no idea how long it would be before I could rejoin the outside world.

 At some point I had an arraignment with a judge via a television screen, and asked to be released on my own recognizance since I hadn’t been in trouble before. My request was denied. I had to sit and watch 2 hours of other inmates’ hearings, including a sexual offender who WAS released on his own recognizance, but that is an entirely separate rant for another day.
Back to my story. I ended up sitting in jail for 2 ½ months before they lowered my bail and I could afford to get out. The case was continued for about a year, and then I was sentenced to a year and had to go in to finish the rest of my sentence (I got credit for the original 2 ½ months) And I will say that I am lucky and eternally grateful that the judge showed mercy in giving me just one year instead of three.

When I was a kid, my mother often grounded me for a month, but I had always found a way to renegotiate her terms and I’d be ungrounded by the end of a week. Except for the time I told her that would happen, then she actually stuck to it for two weeks.
My point is that I had ZERO CONCEPT of consequences at all, never mind of this level. I had no clue that making a couple of phone calls and introducing two people to each other would impact me for decades to come.  To me, this message should get out there to our children so that even if they walk that same path, they at least can’t say they didn’t know.

I would love to share my message with kids facing peer pressure to try drugs and drinking like a majority of their friends (I saw some random statistic that now 20% of kids over age 12 drink alcohol regularly, and that 25% of that figure binge  drink – now that’s scary) I have a 14 year old as well as my 5 year old and while I can talk to the two of them about that, what about the kids like I was, whose parents either don’t care to talk to them about it or assume they don’t need to?

But…the nature of my charge would never let me volunteer or speak to a group of kids in that capacity. Despite the fact that it was 11 years ago and I have not gotten in trouble since (aside from an occasional speeding ticket, but even that has been awhile) How very sad that they will not be able to learn from my mistakes and experiences.  Because to me, if even just ONE of them listened and learned something and altered their course, it would be worth the effort.

Now I’d like to talk about the laundry list of things that constitute a felony. Because honestly? In the family I grew up in, a lot of the things on this list were perfectly normal Saturday afternoon activities. I had no idea I grew up surrounded by criminals and addicts until I went to jail and consequently, therapy.

The concept that a perfectly ordinary individual can become a convicted felon never occurred to me. Maybe it never occurred to you either, unless you have a friend or family member like me. Let’s take a look at what Florida thinks, shall we?

Besides the obvious stuff, like murder, child porn, or robbing a bank, some common felony charges in Florida include: DUI, writing a bad check(fraud), getting in a fight (assault and battery), bigamy (I must admit, I didn’t expect that one), burglary(yes, it’s a felony, whether you are stealing from a house or a car),  and a myriad of charges involving various drugs.

Now, I’m not trying to say any of these things are ok, or that someone who does them shouldn’t get in trouble or have to face their punishment. I’m just trying to say that to a bunch of young adults that are completely uneducated (not all but definitely a percentage) on this topic, these could seem like ordinary things to do. And even if not, they are things it could be very easy to be led into getting involved in.

But not impossible to learn from.

And that is why it isn’t fair to continue to punish someone after they have completed all of the terms of their sentence. When I got the letter seven years ago telling me I was done with probation, it meant that I had completely repaid my debt to society. I am not forbidden by law to be around children or required to register with law enforcement or anything like that, I am just forbidden to be around children by the Seminole County School Board.

It seems so obvious to ME, at least, that someone who got in trouble once eleven years ago (Ooh! It’s after the New Year, I can start saying 12 years now! YAY!), and who hasn’t been in trouble since, has likely found their way to the straight and narrow path.  If I had been arrested every year since for similar things, I could totally see denying my application to volunteer. You know, this year I am eligible to ask for clemency (a pardon). Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll get it, apparently those standards got tougher in 2011, but my point is that it has been a sufficient length of time that I am allowed to begin the process. If it’s been long enough for that, surely it’s been long enough that I can help out around the school.

I think for me, the funniest part (though I wasn’t laughing) is that my first request for appeal was denied by the exact same person who said no to it the first time. How is that an appeal, exactly? Especially since when I spoke to the woman on the phone and she told me it was up to the state, not the county, and there was nothing they could do to approve my application. So when I asked her who it was I should contact about this at the state level, she quickly and snappily told me “NO ONE. There is NO ONE that you can talk to about an appeal, this is the policy.”

Since then I have learned this is NOT the state policy, and that the state leaves it up to each county to decide how they will handle volunteers. So telling me it was not up to the county itself was either a mistake or a lie. Both of which would need correction.

I believe that was the moment that I decided to follow through on this to the best of my ability, to prevent someone else being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. I can take it and shrug it off, because I’m an exceptionally tough cookie. But not everyone can do that. For some people, that could have been the catalyst to push them back into drinking/drugging/self-destructing.
Shame on anyone who would kick someone who is already down like that! (That’s right, I won’t name names since it is public record and anyone can go see who it is online, but yeah SHAME ON YOU. Just because you are not a felon, doesn’t make you a better person, which I think is obvious based on your treatment of others). It is so hard to stay positive and focused in the face of hostility and judgment such as that, and so easy to give up like they intend for you to and say “I’ll never fit in, I’m just a criminal anyway, I may as well continue what I was doing before, because there is no room for the likes of me on the path of the righteous and good. They’re right, I should just go away.”

I have many MANY motivations to keep on fighting the good fight (in SO many areas of my life, which will come out over time as I continue this blog) and that is how I pick myself up, dust myself off and try again.  And if I can somehow pick myself up AND help others in the process, well, then that is another positive I can achieve even though I am a felon…..and I take those positives when I can, since we felons get so few of those.  ;)

That’s enough rambling for today. I have had many of you ask me to let you know when I am ready to present to the school board, so that you may join my cheering section – I will definitely make sure I announce it.   For now, I shall continue my research of county, state, and federal school volunteer rules and start watching prior school board meetings online so I can get a feel for how things go so I am more comfortable when it is time for my presentation. I like to do things properly and thoroughly, and those things take a little bit of time.

On that note, I will leave you with some parting motivational words from my five year old. With inspiration like this, how could I possibly give up? :)