An eastern Iowa school district has adopted stricter volunteer policies and more frequent background checks, after the superintendent allowed a convicted sex offender to volunteer in the district.
Earlier this year, hundreds of parents, students, alumni and community members crowded into the Mid-Prairie High School gym in Wellman to make their voices heard on an issue that divided the community. Reporting by the Des Moines Register found Superintendent Mark Schneider had allowed a convicted sex offender, Trent Yoder, to volunteer in the district, without consulting with the school board, teachers or parents.
This week the Mid-Prairie School Board adopted policies they hope will protect their students and rebuild community trust. Board President Jeremy Pickard said he's confident in the new procedures.
"It takes a lifetime to build trust, and it can take one decision or one thing to really disrupt that. What I do feel is we've been very transparent," Pickard said.
As a teacher and volleyball coach in Anita, Iowa in 1998, Yoder pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child, after filming a student athlete changing clothes. Two decades later, Yoder had served his time and been removed from the sex offender registry. As a parent with children in Mid-Prairie schools, he sought to become a volunteer. When a background check flagged Yoder's record, Superintendent Schneider initially rejected his application. But after recieving letters of support from community members, Schneider let Yoder volunteer anyway, chaperoning trips and building theatre sets. Schneider said he made the decision based on "Yoder's remorseful and open manner, and his connections to the community."
Board officials say Schneider's decision was in line with district policy at the time.
At a Monday night meeting, the Mid-Prairie School Board unanimously agreed those policies were not enough. After weeks of discussion by a committee that included school board members, teachers, law enforcement, local officials, clergy, and social workers, the board adopted rules Pickard says will ensure this situation never happens again.
“To our knowledge, there’s nothing that’s happened since then. There’s no student that we know of in our Mid-Prairie School District that was harmed or anything like that. So I’m not fearful of that," Pickard said. "But we do need to make sure, that by action or by perception, that people feel safe.”
Volunteers in the district must now pass local and federal background checks every other year, instead of once every five years. Those checks include clearing Social Security number verification, a county criminal records search, searches of federal criminal records and alias databases, sex offender registries, and the state abuse registry. Convictions that disqualify a teacher from being licensed will now also disqualify volunteers, while convictions are at the discretion of the administration. Any appeals of disqualifications will go through the school board, instead of the superintendent.
Pickard said other district administrators across the state have been watching Mid-Prairie's deliberations and policy discussions. He says other boards plan to adopt similar policies in order to ensure their students are protected and potential volunteers are vetting thoroughly.
"We know that we are being watched by a number of other school districts. People who I know in other school districts have said that. Because they're also concerned that their policies maybe aren't as good or as a strong as they need to be," Pickard said. "Unfortunately we had kind of a tough sitaution that we are now turning into something that other people might be able to benefit from."