When Background Checks Go Too Far: Screening Volunteer Master Gardeners

Submitted by an anonymous volunteer

I was at a Maricopa County (Phoenix AZ) Master Gardeners meeting this evening (I am a Master Gardener volunteer) helping with applications for the next Master Gardener training course -- a 17 week training program to teach people in the Southwest how to garden and take care of their landscape plants here, plus a component of our internship program to become a Master Gardener Volunteer. 

The program is run by the University of Arizona. The University is now requiring background checks of applicants applying to take this course. The applicants are paying $275 to take the course and part of that fee also pays for their own background check.

Background Checks for Master Gardeners in Maricopa County.???!!! I am flabbergasted.

So I approached the director about it and asked what is the University's concern. He responded that because Master Gardeners get involved with children’s programs and school gardens the University wants to ensure pedophiles are not coming into the program. Ye-ah, riii-ght.

You know, there are much easier ways for a child predator to get access to children than to sit through a 17 week training course to learn the botanical names of 200+ desert plants, learn about pest insects like the Palo Verde bore and the Agave snout weevil, controls for noxious weeds, the many citrus varieties that grow here and slime flux disease, and on top of all that do 50 hours of volunteer service on gardening projects and education in our communities. What about the 5000 kids whose parents just dropped them off at our malls? They seem like much easier targets to me.

I asked him if the program had ever had an incident with a pedophile Master Gardener. Not that he knew of. Had any Master Gardener program across the country ever have an incident with a pedophile Master Gardener? Again, he didn't know.

It seems evident to me that the risk is pretty darn low, if non-existent, that someone would go to such lengths to use the Master Gardener program as a vehicle for committing crimes against children. What is the profile for pedophile? I'll have to check the FBI Crime Report to find out how many are Master Gardeners. How many do volunteer work in their communities freely - not enforced by the court system as part some punishment. How many garden, or even like plants.

We are volunteers. We are gardeners. We like to meticulously care for and show off our championship roses. We enjoy growing tasteful, healthful foods for ourselves and our children. On Sunday afternoons we're outside with pitchforks turning our compost. Background checks!!!!?????

I am almost dying to see these reports once they start coming in. I bet it will be the largest compilation of useless data (even some false data) ever collected and filed by any organization. (Maricopa County, BTW, currently has the largest Master Gardener program in the country. It would be terrible for us to set this kind of precedent for other Master Gardener programs across the country.)

P.S.  The background authorization/consent form was handed out to all the applicants and the form is to be submitted with the application along with the check for $275 to pay for the gardening class and the background check. This is simply a public class taught by the Cooperative Extension about gardening -- no college credit is given. It is attended by adults ages 18 to 99. This is a well sought after class so we always have more applications than we have room in the class, so there is an application/interview process. Applicants are selected by a panel. Those turned down get refunded their fee. My impression is that this background check is part of the criteria for selection. As the form reads:

"During the application process and at any time during the tenure of my volunteer service with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, I hereby authorize ChoicePoint Service Inc, on behalf of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension to procure a criminal background report which I understand may include information regarding my character, general reputation, and personal characteristics. This report may be compiled with information from court record repositories, departments of motor vehicles, part or present employers and educational institutions, governmental occupational licensing or registration entities, business or personal references, and any other source required to verify information that I have voluntarily supplied. I understand that additional criminal background reports may be required from other state our county law enforcement agencies if ChoicePoint Service Inc does not provide the required information. I understand that I may request a complete and accurate disclosure of the nature and scope of background verification; to the extent such investigation included information bearing on my character, general reputation, or personal characteristics."