Aug. 25, 2010 -- 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.
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.
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.
"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."
Cranston, R.I., School Policy Tougher on Volunteers Than Teachers
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."
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.
In addition to the 12-step program, previous volunteer activities and letters of recommendation, Gianfrocco had gone to Washington, D.C., to address members of Congress about drug program funding as part of Brown University Center for the Study of Children at Risk Vulnerable Infants Program. She is also taking classes toward becoming a licensed drug counselor. "I'm trying to give back what was given to me," she said.
But after her hearing in October 2009, the Cranston School Committee, according to court documents, said it could "do nothing" about her appeal or the Cranston School Department's denial. The Cranston school superintendent, according to the documents, told her that the department was "going back to the drawing board with the policy." Then, at the suggestion of a Cranston School Committee member, Gianfrocco withdrew her application in November 2009.
Since that date, the Cranston School Department policy regarding volunteers has remained the same.
Although Gianfrocco can serve as correspondence coordinator for the Parent Teacher Organization and is still on the parent's advisory committee, she stands on the sidelines at school events.
Gianfrocco Stands Aside at School Events
"I can help out, I can donate supplies," she said, but "if I threw away a bag of garbage, that would be considered volunteering.
"I would love to chaperone a field trip," she said, citing pumpkin picking and a visit to a farm as events she'd missed out on.
"I remember my mother doing that when I was young. My daughter says a lot of times the teachers will say, 'Get your parents to volunteer, we need chaperones. I tell her my job won't let me take time off. I have to lie. I'm not going to bring up that subject with her. She's too young."
Regarding the ACLU lawsuit, Gianfrocco said, "I just want to be able to open the barriers. Right now, if you have a felony, you're disqualified."
She said she believes the school system does need a policy regarding those with criminal records.
"I don't want a child molester in the school with my daughter either, but they need some type of discretion."
The Cranston School Department said it can't yet comment on the case. "We can't talk about it, because we haven't been served yet," said Gail Macera, executive assistant to the superintendent.