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Discriminating Against Recovered Addicts Is Just Wrong!

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Jennifer Ginsberg: Six years ago, Jessica Gianfrocco was convicted of heroin possession. She served her time and has been on the straight and narrow ever since. Because she failed a routine background check, however, she has now been banned from volunteering at her daughter's elementary school. She has enlisted the support of the ACLU and is suing the Cranston, Rhode Island, school department for discrimination.

Jessica Gianfrocco
How appalling that a woman who has cleaned up her act and is attempting to be of service to her daughter's school is being singled out via such Draconian measures. If she were a registered sex offender -- or still actively using drugs -- then of course one would expect her to be banned from volunteering. But since she's someone who committed a nonviolent criminal offense (an offense that resulted from her drug addiction), this over-response is inexcusable and hateful. 

Perhaps the Cranston school district should start randomly drug- and alcohol-testing all of its parent volunteers -- and staff, for that matter. I say that because I am certain that Gianfrocco is not the only one with addiction issues; she is simply the only one who got caught. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for drug addicts and alcoholics to get clean and sober, and maintaining long-term sobriety is a great accomplishment. Ms. Gianfrocco should be honored for not only beating her criminal past and drug addiction, but for making an effort to be an active part of her daughter's education. 

This is a sad case of a school administration obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit. It's a tactic commonly employed by oppressive governments -- not something one would expect from a neighborhood elementary school. The Cranston school district's unfair edict also reinforces the societal misconception that drug addiction is a matter of morality, rather than an illness (as is widely acknowledged by the medical community). 

What if the school had banned a person with diabetes, or one who was medically obese, from volunteering? That would have created an uproar, and probably would've resulted in national headlines (as it should have). Like drug addiction, both diabetes and obesity are classified as illnesses, and it takes a tremendous amount of discipline and personal strength to treat them. But because addiction and alcoholism are widely misunderstood (and many see those who suffer from them as weak rather than sick), Gianfrocco's case has been mostly ignored by the media. 

The recovering alcoholics and drug addicts I work with are some of the most insightful, self-reflective and loving parents I know. They work hard to be positive role models for their children and they're determined to break the cycle of addiction in their families. Their children are also some of the happiest I've ever seen. 

Addicts and alcoholics who haven't found sobriety yet shouldn't be stereotyped as "bad parents" who are unworthy to volunteer in their kids' schools, either. Sick and needing help? Yes. Bad? No. Besides, no amount of finger-pointing, shaming and ostracizing has ever catapulted an addict towards sobriety. Rather, it only drives them further into their addiction by reinforcing the idea that they are worthless, defective and not good enough. 

Kudos to Ms. Gianfrocco for not letting this ridiculous ban dampen her spirit. I admire her strength and courage in going public with this issue, and for taking positive action by enlisting the support of the ACLU. And I hope that together, they will sue the pants off of the Cranston school district -- and win!

next: Talking with a Parent Who Is Dying
53 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous September 9, 2010, 4:46 AM

I’m sad that she had to go public but it’s probably going to be a good thing that she did. I know plenty of people who cleaned up their act and are productive wonderful citizens. I couldn’t imagine their lives if they weren’t given second chances. Why stop using drugs if society won’t care. Keep fighting Jennifer. There is a portion of society that still believes in second chances.

Leah September 9, 2010, 6:32 AM

I’m tired of people not wanting to be responsible for their choices. She was a drug addict - how dare anyone compare that to real disease like Diabetes or Cancer -no one chooses to have cancer but addicts CHOOSE to use drugs/alcohol. What type of person even tries heroin in the first place? Not someone I’d want around my kids.

Or if we go by the author’s logic, since thise woman has a “disease” then it’s okay for someone with cancer to commite felonies and just forget about it? Come on, I grew up with an alcoholic father and he will be the first to tell you it’s a choice.

People need to accept that their choices have far reaching consequences. Violent or non-violent, who care, this woman (who’s story I’ve read before) committed multiple felonies. That is NOT the type of person I’d want volunteering around my kids.

Anna September 9, 2010, 6:37 AM

100% dead on Leah!! I don’t want a heroin addict volunteering at my child’s preschool either!!

No one forced her to use heroin in the first place. EVERYONE knows it is highly addictive. Her CHOICE (not disease) to use it in the first place speaks volumes about her and her decision making.

Now she’ll waste tax-payers money on a lawsuit. Wonderful. SO she feels she’s exempt from the school board’s rules? She commited crimes. They stay on her record. Maybe she should have thought about that before choosing to use drugs.

Bella September 9, 2010, 6:51 AM

She’s not being discriminated against for being an addict. She’s being excluded from volunteering because she’s an EX CON with a felony record. Wake up people, the media is reporting this on a very biased angle. Would there be any question if this person was convicted of murder, rape, arson? She chose to break the law.

Sarah September 9, 2010, 6:54 AM

How catty, immature, and judgmental some other mothers can be! (Yes, I’m talking about the two women who posted above me.) Are these the things you will pass onto your children?

Jennifer made a mistake. She served her time and has been clean for years. She is not a current drug user. Instead, let’s teach our children about tolerance, acceptance, and love.

Jamie RN September 9, 2010, 7:14 AM

Jennifer did not “make a mistake” she committed crimes. These crimes stay on her record like it would for anyone else. Only she wants special treatment because she has a “disease” (hmm, I guess cancer patients should be allowed the same liberties when it comes to breaking laws?)

How soon until a parent who made a mistake and killed or raped or beat someone protests and deamnds their “right” to volunteer at a school? This woman didn’t make a mistake, she made poor choices and now has to deal with the consequences of her own decisions -like each of us has to. I’m glad schools do criminal background checks and don’t allow those w/felonies on their records to participate in school activities. I also think they should start drug testing teachers & volunteers!

Pam September 9, 2010, 8:38 AM

Wow…you women are narrow-minded, finger-pointing, prejudiced nasty people. How DARE you judge this woman. Who do you think you are?? Glass houses and stones???? She is likely 10 times a better person than all of you. You should be ashamed of yourselves. I agree with the author, let’s random drug test the teachers and volunteers. You nasty little finger pointers will be surprised to see what kind of drug/alcohol addicted people are around your children on a daily basis.

Kate September 9, 2010, 9:32 AM

As a former teacher, you have to be really careful who you let into your classroom. Parents depend on you to keep the classroom safe and that means not allowing some people to volunteer. This woman did make mistakes in her past. But what she needs to realize is that those mistakes have long term consequences. This being one of the them.

momwfaith September 9, 2010, 9:54 AM

If a cancer patient was caught stealing cancer drugs, then yes, we should still allow them to volunteer. There is a big difference between feeding your addiction/disease and raping someone. As a recovering addict myself, three years clean, with a seven year old daughter I would have no problem with someone who had been reabilitated working with my child. Anyone who is passing judgement should walk a day in an addicts’ shoes.

Kendra September 9, 2010, 10:11 AM

First and foremost I’m highly offended that you compare diabetes to heroin addiction. I have been a diabetic since the age of 8! My diabetes (type 1, organ failure) was not a CHOICE!!!! I would never choose to have this disease!!! Since the author of this article seems to be quite stupid I will point out that a diabetic does not choose to have this disease and does not endanger
themselves or others by making the
decidion to break the law! Equating having diabetes to drug addiction is completely ludicrous and quite offensive! With that said I will
address this womans story. The
issue isn’t the fact that she is a
recovering addict the issue is that
she is in fact a felon. Convicted
felons should never ever be allowed
to interact with children in a school
setting in any capacity. The fact that
she is sober shouldnt matter. She
should be held accountable for her
poor decision making and former
criminal past and that is just what
is being done here. Whether or not alcoholism and drug
addiction much like most forms of
obesity are considered diseases it shouldn’t be a factor in this type of decision. In my opinion they should
be classified as a self inflicted diseases. Nothing forces these
people to drink, do drugs, or over
eat! They choose to do these things
to themselves. I also believe that
this is a great teaching and learning
experience not only for this womans
child but for all children. It reenforces
the fact that there are far reaching consequences for your actions! She should have thought about all of this when she choose to do drugs and
break the law! Don’t except
sympathy from me! You did it to
yourself so own it.

Anonymous September 9, 2010, 10:17 AM

Well Said Leah & Kendra!!

Jamie September 9, 2010, 10:43 AM

Jessica seems to believe herself above logic and law.
On one hand she’s crying that it wasn’t her fault she committed felonies - she has a “disease” and that can’t be controlled.
On the other hand we’re supposed to believe despite this “disease” she’s controlled enough to be around children?!

And shame on the author for comparing a real disease like diabetes, to choices like using drugs, drinking or over-eating.

Heather Robinson September 9, 2010, 11:27 AM

The point of the piece is that an individual who has made mistakes and sincerely, consistently overcome negative patterns of behavior should not be eternally penalized. Whether one classifies addiction as a bona fide illness is a side issue, and not the main focus of the piece.

Especially given that this woman’s crimes were never violent, and by all indicators, it appears her recovery is solid, on what basis do above commentators such as Kendra argue she should never have the right to participate in volunteerism at her child’s school. Before impugning others’ intelligence, Kendra ought to learn to make a rational argument. Because I can’t find a shred of logic in her pointlessly judgmental rant.

Good piece, Ms. Ginsberg.

Rita September 9, 2010, 12:00 PM

Wow, how incredibly judgmental some of these commentators are. I guess you’ve never known anyone with an addiction problem that they overcame. Most addicts are actually great people who made a poor decision.

I hope you don’t pass on to your children your horrible judgmental views. Whatever happened to forgiveness? To err is human, to forgive devine. Do your research before you comment on something you obviously know nothing about.

I totally agree about drug and alcohol testing the teachers and volunteers. You’ll be really shocked when you find out just who is currently addicted to drugs in your child’s school.

Educate yourself and your children so your children won’t fall into bad choices. If you think your child will never do drugs or alcohol, news flash: If they’re in middle school or above, they probably already have.

Mia September 9, 2010, 12:08 PM

“If you think your child will never do drugs or alcohol, news flash: If they’re in middle school or above, they probably already have.”
Actually, parents who make comments like those above expect and accept that their children will do drugs. My friends and I hold our children to higher expectations and standards. Hardly any of my friends have done drugs or alcohol and we’re all pretty young moms (23-30)so saying most people in middle schoolhave already done so may be acceptable to that poster but I think most people have higher values for themselves and their children.

Personally I think it shows weak character to be involved with drugs ever. EVERY teen knows how horrible heroin is and this woman wasn’t even a teen or that young when she did what she did. I wouldn’t want someone like that around my children.

And as for her felony being non-violent it is still a felony. I don’t believe felons should be allowed to volunteer in a school. They need to live with the choices they made.

KS September 9, 2010, 12:32 PM

As the victim of two addicts crimes one of which who was prosecuted and now hangs his hat on how he paid his debt to society I would have a problem with this.
The far reaching repercussions for the victims of addicts crimes don’t just stop the day that person finishes their jail sentence. It stands to reason the far reaching repercussions for the addict shouldn’t either.
These rules are not in place simply to punish ex cons. They are in place to protect children. Lets not lose sight of that.
This woman made mistakes and sure her crimes were non violent but not all felon’s crimes are non violent.
If she is sober now good for her I hope that her path of sobriety takes her to great places and she is able to volunteer her time with her children in other activities. This however is one teaching lesson she could use in a very big way in her home on how drugs ruin lives for the long term.

Anonymous September 9, 2010, 2:12 PM

I applaude the school for doing back round check on their volunteers, all schools should. I realize that her drug use is in her past but having 2 felony charges will always be in her future so she needs to just accept it for what it is and maybe find a way to help without going in the school. I help a lot in my kids school and sometimes the teachers will ask me to take projects home to do, maybe she can help that way. We should always try and give people a 2nd chance but we shouldn’t bend rules for people who break them in the first place.

Anonymous September 9, 2010, 2:16 PM

Addiction is a disease. It causes people to do things that hurt the people around them. Addicts are often untrustworthy. Addiction is also very hard to overcome. So I don’t think it’s judgemental for parents or schools to be worried about an addict volunteering in the classroom. I’ve known people who stayed sober and I would trust them, but I wouldn’t be so sure about someone I didn’t know. I think it should be on a case-by-case basis and I think schools should be allowed to exclude addicts or put limits on what they can do. I think it would be too bad if the ACLU wins and schools become afraid to discriminate against alcoholics and drug addicts who want to go on field trips or help out in the classroom.

Rita September 9, 2010, 9:40 PM

Mia, I’m not so naive as to believe my children will never be around drugs or never want to do them. I would not be fine with it though, if I ever found out they were doing drugs or drinking alcohol underage, I’d sit down and have a serious talk with them and explain how it could potentially ruin their life. It doesn’t mean I don’t care what my children do. It just means I’m more aware of what they WILL come across one day. I won’t lock them in their room so they’ll never know what the real world is really like. Children need to make their own mistakes to learn.

You would be really surprised to find out just how easy and accessible drugs are in your very own neighborhood. It’s not something just in “poor” neighborhoods. They’re everywhere. The best thing you can do is know just how easy and accessible drugs are and have that talk with your child.

I smoked pot when I was younger. Does that make me a bad mother? No. I’m a SAHM and involved with my church and child’s school. I have an education, have a stable and secure marriage and live in a nice neighborhood. I know the people caddy-corner from me sell drugs. Doesn’t mean I want to go over there and buy anything because that ship sailed a long time ago.

JAMIE September 9, 2010, 11:46 PM

I really don’t think this lady realized when she was addicted to drugs that one day a school would refuse her the privilege to volunteer at her childs school. By the way it’s not “disease” addiction is a disease, it’s real and you should all educate yourselves on it because there is a good chance that someone you know and love is an addict. I know first hand that it hurts deeply to watch someone you love fight with addiction. I feel this lady shouldn’t be denied the right to volunteer at her childs school. Apparently she’s not too bad of a person as DCF hasn’t taken her child from her!!! Ever think about that? Drug test the lady if she’s clean then let her volunteer. She probably has an amazing story about her road to recovery but of course many of you wouldnt hear it since you can only see her one side and that is that she commited a crime. Have you ever exceeded the speed limit? If so you also commited a crime. Sure there is a couple differences, your crime wasnt classified as a felony and you probably didn’t have a disease that had you mind so far gone that it was nearly impossible for you to not speed! PLEASE everyone educate your self on addiction! It’s real and ALOT of people live and fight with it everyday!

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