By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson sent the Dedicated and Diverse Support (D.A.D.S.) organization packing on May 19, because it failed to conduct background checks on its members before they began working in schools.
Shortly after taking over the district last month, Thompson began reviewing the system's agreements with several organizations, including the January 2007 Memorandum of Understanding signed by D.A.D.S. officials and former superintendent, Barbara Pulliam. The group was designed to get fathers to go to the schools and help administrators deal with discipline issues, by being mentors to male students.
When he looked at D.A.D.S., Thompson reviewed the organization's obligations outlined in the memorandum and determined that the group "met some of these requirements, while falling short on others," according to an e-mail which was sent to all principals and several members of Thompson's cabinet by his assistant, Alma Phillips.
"Until further notice, Dr. Thompson has ordered that all schools across the district sever ties with the D.A.D.S. organization," according to the e-mail. "He has also requested that D.A.D.S. members who would like to continue volunteering in our schools may do so, however, they are not to wear any clothing, label, or insignia that associates them with the organization."
The D.A.D.S. organization has been popular with principals, some board of education members and former interim superintendent, Gloria Duncan, who once told a group of parents that she wanted a female counterpart, because she was pleased with the impact D.A.D.S. had in the schools.
However, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by D.A.D.S. leaders and former superintendent Pulliam, mandates that the organization is responsible for making sure its members are pre-screened for "maturity, self-control and responsibility," before they begin working in the schools. The agreement also states, "As a condition of serving as provider personnel, all individuals must ... undergo a criminal history check, with results satisfactory to the board or its designee ..."
The school system has specific requirements for any group which offers mentoring to Clayton County students. Mentors must be a resident of Georgia for at least six months, go through training, and be subjected to a criminal background check, according to the board's policy for mentoring programs.
Anthony Williams, the president of D.A.D.S., admitted his organization did not do everything it was supposed to do in regard to criminal background checks. As a result, he said he understands Thompson's reasons for reaching his decision.
Williams said a new Memorandum of Understanding is being negotiated with the school system, and he hopes to have the organization back in Clayton County schools when the 2008-09 school year begins in August. The main obstacle is finding a way to have the background checks performed on each member without incurring a high price tag for each father.
Williams said each member, not the organization, is responsible for having a criminal background check performed. "We're trying to work something out with Sheriff Victor Hill and [Clayton County] Police Chief Jeff Turner to come up with an inexpensive way to get these background checks taken care of," Williams said.
The e-mail from Phillips states that the district's relationship with D.A.D.S. has always been professional and Thompson believes the organization's leaders have worked with the system in "good faith." Thompson is going to continue to "monitor the situation" and "keep open lines of communications," according to the e-mail.
The members of D.A.D.S. can volunteer as individuals, because the district does not require background checks for people who have limited or no interaction with children.
These volunteers can help out in a classroom as long as they are supervised by a teacher, act as a lunchroom monitor or work in a school's front office, according to district spokesman Charles White.
There are "hundreds" of volunteers who worked in Clayton County schools this year, White said. The district did not have backgrounds checks for any of them. There are limitations placed on these volunteers. The cannot have access to student records; they have to remain under the supervision of a school system employee; they cannot have direct contact with a child unless a teacher is present; they have to sign in, and sign out, in the front office and they must wear a volunteer badge while they are in the school.
White said having the volunteers constantly working under the supervision of a school system employee is the best safe guard to prevent a volunteer from acting in an inappropriate manner around children. "There's always somebody else around," he said.
Williams said some members of D.A.D.S. have been upset about the school system requiring background checks for people who mentor students, but not requiring them for other volunteers. The organization's leader has tried to explain that D.A.D.S. should be held to a higher standard, because the group does more than the average volunteer group, such as the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).
"They do their own thing, but we're not like them," Williams said. "We do something completely different."
In some cases, the argument has fallen on deaf ears.
At least one D.A.D.S. member questions whether Thompson's decision to remove the group stems from political motivations being generated by members of the board of education.
Some high-ranking members, including Calvin Tysinger, president of the group's chapter at Mt. Zion High School, have been publicly calling for board members to resign. Two have resigned, while a third was removed from office by his colleagues. The board members who are still in office hired Thompson in mid-April.
Tysinger said the removal of D.A.D.S. is not as much about background checks, as it is about political retribution. "We're just as important as the PTSA or any other group in the schools," he said. "To punish the overall D.A.D.S. organization over a political issue is just sad."
The school system, and board members, denied there was any truth to Tysinger's claims, however. "The superintendent did not consult with, or discuss his decision with any board members," White said.