Background checks now required for all volunteers
The Methow Valley School District is tightening its procedures after a chaperone on an Oct. 4 mountain biking field trip was charged with sexual misconduct.
The district’s procedures will include a requirement that all school volunteers, including field trip chaperones, undergo a Washington State Patrol background check. Volunteers and internship mentors usually go through the background check, Superintendent Tom Venable said, but this step is not currently included in the district’s written procedures.
The school district has no record that Emily Binning-Wolak, the chaperone who was charged with felony sexual misconduct, ever went through a background check, Venable said.
“We’re not certain that would have prevented this incident from occurring, but it’s our job to minimize the likelihood that events like these take place when students are under our supervision,” Venable said.
According to court documents, Binning-Wolak, 41, was arrested on Oct. 8 after telling a sheriff’s deputy she had consensual sex with a 16-year-old Liberty Bell High School student after the two separated from the rest of the group during a mountain biking trip in the Sun Mountain area. The boy also told the deputy the sex was consensual, according to court documents.
Adults who have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old in Washington state can be charged with sexual misconduct with a minor if they are at least 60 months older and in a supervisory role.
Binning-Wolak also was charged with communication with a minor for immoral purposes, for sending nude photographs of herself to another Liberty Bell student through Facebook Messenger, according to the deputy’s report. Binning-Wolak pleaded not guilty. Her trial is set for Jan. 7 but could be postponed.
Binning-Wolak’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Language also will be added to the field trip procedures requiring fingerprinting of volunteers accompanying students on overnight travel, or out-of-state or international travel.
Venable said he is not aware of any inappropriate behavior by adults on these types of trips; he only wants to put the fingerprinting requirement in writing.
“This is a practice that is already in place and consistently enforced,” he said.
School administrators will start training all staff on field trip policies and procedures at the beginning of every school year, Venable said.
Staff already have been informed of the upcoming changes to field trip procedures, and they are already in force, Venable said.
School policies, including the district’s field trip policy, are available on the school district’s website at methow.org/district/district-policies. They broadly define the rationale for school activities and are approved by the school board.
Procedures, which aren’t available online, outline how policies will be carried out and are written by the superintendent. Venable said he would present the new field trip procedures to the board for their review after winter break.
The policy as stated online will remain the same: “Field trips, when used as a device for teaching and learning integral to the curriculum, are an educationally sound and important ingredient in the instructional program of the schools.”
“The changes we are making to our field trip procedures and practices reflect our strong interest in continuing to provide all students with access to enriching activities, while ensuring their safety to the best of our ability,” Venable said.
Before field trips, teachers will discuss with administrators how to arrange the adult supervision, the superintendent said. The school district will continue to offer bicycling field trips but may ask teachers to assign more than one chaperone to each group of students.
This would be intended to prevent “the likelihood that any one adult would be with a student alone, unsupervised,” Venable said.
“Common sense suggests proactive planning involving background checks and adequate supervision levels in advance of each field trip will help to minimize the likelihood of future events,” Venable added.
“Will background checks alone address every concern? No. Will an adequate staff-to-student ratio alone prevent incidents from occurring? No,” Venable added. “But these, combined with proactive planning that gives consideration to the unique situation involving each field trip, will help to greatly reduce the likelihood of such incidents.”
The new procedures come after an investigation into the incident by Clear Risk Solutions, which handles risk management for the United Schools Insurance Program — the insurance provider for more than 150 small- and medium-sized school districts in Washington state.
The district asked Clear Risk Solutions to conduct the investigation. No report was available for public review because the results of the investigation were not presented to district officials in writing, Venable said.