“Can you imagine if I had not been there? That would have been devastating!” Such is my mother’s recollection of a harvest feast which had been hosted at my elementary school in fifth grade.

The day of the event she informed that she probably would not be able to attend due to a scheduling conflict at work. Once she arrived at the office, however, her colleagues took one look at her distracted face and immediately rescheduled the meeting so that she could rush off to my feast.

Arriving breathlessly in our multi-purpose room as the second course began, my mother scanned down the long lunch tables to find an empty spot on the bench next to me. As she slid alongside me, I proclaimed as my arms wrapped around her waist, “I saved a seat for you just in case.”

To this day, my mother tells me she is still haunted by the vision of that spot on the bench remaining empty for the entire feast if she had not rearranged her schedule to join me. It is unclear who would have been more devastated by her absence – me as her child, or she as my parent.

Luckily, we never had to find out. Unfortunately, however, Grand Rapids Public School System’s current volunteer policy forces many parents, grandparents and guardians to face this dilemma on a regular basis.

GRPS has a policy of prohibiting individuals with any type of felony record from volunteering in their children’s or grandchildren’s schools regardless of the age of the conviction and regardless of whether the offense has any relationship to the person’s ability to be a good school volunteer.

No one disagrees with the fact that dangerous individuals have no place in our schools. Yet, many of the individuals impacted by GRPS’ policy have convictions that are years, or even decades, old for offenses involving financial or other nonviolent crimes. It is clear, then, that this lack of individualized consideration needlessly bans individuals who pose absolutely no threat to the school community to the detriment of everyone involved.

The overwhelming weight of academic scholarship supports what we already know intuitively, namely, that active parental involvement in school is one of the most critical factors in a child’s educational success at all grade levels. By amending its policy to allow for case-by-case consideration of each individual’s criminal history, GRPS can screen out potentially problematic volunteers while reaping the enormous benefits of getting more parents, grandparents, and guardians involved in the school system.

Detroit City Council recently approved an ordinance to remove a question about felony convictions from city job applications to emphasize individualized consideration rather than an absolute ban in its employment considerations. It is time for GRPS to follow suit and adopt a policy of individualized review. This will cut down on the number of seats that are needlessly empty next to our students, and allow them to be filled with parents, grandparents and guardians who will make a tremendous difference.

By Jessie Rossman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney