Reformed Heroin Addict Mom Barred From Volunteering at Daughter's School

PHOTO Jessica Gianfrocco says shes been clean for years but is nonetheless barred from volunteering at any event at her daughters school.
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When Jessica Gianfrocco's daughter started kindergarten at the Arlington Elementary School in Cranston, R.I., last September, Giainfrocco looked forward to becoming a school volunteer.

"There was an open house, and someone from the parent teacher group spoke up and said kids do better if parents volunteer. She urged us to do it," said Gianfrocco, who had already served as a "team mom" for her daughter's cheerleading team and had volunteered at her preschool for three years.

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But volunteering at the elementary school was not to be. Gianfrocco's application was rejected.

A background criminal investigation, required as part of a new policy the Cranston School Department adopted in June 2009 for volunteers, revealed Gianfrocco had two felony convictions for drug possession, from when she was in her early 20s, before her daughter was born.

"I did have a problem with heroin," Gianfrocco told ABCNews.com, "but I've been clean for six years."

Gianfrocco sought professional help for her heroin addiction and still participates in a 12-step program, but school district policy barred her from volunteering at school events that involved children.

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The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union took up Gianfrocco's case Monday, filing a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court against the Cranston School Department, charging that its volunteer policy violated Gianfrocco's equal protection rights and various state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Drug addiction is considered a disability.

"We think [the case] raises very important civil liberties issues," Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island affiliate, told ABCNews.com.

"It covers a bunch of important themes that concern us, one is the ability of ex-offenders to be able to integrate into society," he said.

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"Jessica is a perfect example of someone who ran into troubles when when she was young and turned her life around completely and yet still finds herself being punished and stigmatized because of that past."

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Unlike the Cranston School Department's policy for volunteers, Rhode Island law does not automatically use a criminal record or drug-related disability as a barrier to employment, and also exempts commercial vendors and others from such a stringent policy as long as they work alongside school personnel.

"The teachers can teach with a criminal record, but she can't volunteer," said the ACLU's Brown. "State law requires criminal record checks for teachers, and certain offenses are disqualifying offenses, but an employer can use independent judgment and hire a teacher notwithstanding."

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Gianfrocco said she'd read the school district's policy regarding volunteeers, and knew that her felonies might work against her.

"But the policy said there was an appeals process, and I figured at the hearing I could bring in my letters of recommendation," she said.

She also believed the school board would take her other activities that pointed toward rehabilitation into account.

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