TRENTON – Citing a horrific incident in which a volunteer basketball coach raped a 7-year-old girl he supervised at Grove Street Elementary School in Irvington, Senator Shirley K. Turner, Chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, today called for closing the loophole which makes it optional for schools to perform background checks on volunteers.
“My heart goes out to the little girl and her family, who’ve had to suffer so much because of a lack of background checks for volunteers at Grove Street School,” said Senator Turner, D-Mercer. “It is outrageous that a person with a checkered past can slip under the radar and be placed in a volunteer position which gives him unsupervised access to our kids and grandkids. I would like to see State Department of Education Commissioner (Lucille) Davy take immediate action to close this loophole and make background checks for volunteers mandatory. I will also pursue legislative action to ensure that we perform due diligence in protecting children from predators moving forward.”
Senator Turner cited an article in yesterday’s Star Ledger, which detailed the case of Glenn Harp, a Newark man who pleaded guilty last week to raping a 7-year-old girl he supervised in an after-school basketball program in Irvington. Harp, a 38-year-old resident of Newark, was indicted a decade earlier on charges of sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, but was able to plead down to a lesser charge, and only received three years probation. School board members noted that school policy requires background checks for volunteers, but in this case, the school policy was not followed.
“While Irvington has a policy in place to conduct background checks on individuals who volunteer at their schools, throughout the rest of the state, volunteer background checks are optional,” said Senator Turner. “The safety and welfare of our children should not be considered optional, and we must take action to protect kids from deviants posing as civic-minded volunteers.”
Senator Turner added that, in addition to thorough and complete background checks of volunteers, the school district had a responsibility to notify parents when the allegations of assault came to light. After Harp’s arrest, the school district suspended the after-school program, but never notified the parents of children involved in the program as to why the program was being suspended.
“The Irvington School District handled this case poorly from day one,” said Senator Turner. “When it came to light that the school district harbored a rapist posing as a volunteer basketball coach, school board officials should have made an effort to reach out to the parents of children put at risk. School districts have a responsibility to protect the safety of students entrusted to their care, and when someone slips through the cracks, the district needs to be forthcoming with parents and ensure it never happens again.”
Senator Turner said she is preparing legislation, and will formally introduce the bill shortly.