By Bill Petzold
VASSAR — Twenty years ago, Chad Hunkins thought it was cool to be bad.
These days, the 37-year-old Vassar man is finding it much more fun to be Dad.
Hunkins was disappointed this week when he found out a felony conviction for breaking and entering an occupied building in 1993 prevented him from attending his son’s field trip Thursday to the Octagon Barn in Gagetown.
“The guidelines are there,” Hunkins said. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the guidelines. It’s to protect everybody’s children — including my two — who go on these field trips.
“But then you have guys like me, a non-violent offender, and you go all the way back 19 years to a felony when I was 17 or 18, and here I am a (nearly) 38-year-old father and husband, and you tell me I can’t go? And I know there’s other guys out there like me.
“You have communities, churches and schools saying fathers need to do more with their children because there’s too many deadbeat dads out there, and then you have a guy like me. I do everything: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League, tee ball, soccer.
“I wasn’t expecting (the story) to blow up. I’m not trying to bring negativity to the school district or anybody intentionally, I’m just trying to get support for something I think is unfair and unjust, a so-called ‘unwritten’ rule.”
Hunkins applied to be a chaperone for the trip and agreed to submit to a background check as is common practice for chaperones at most schools. According to Hunkins, the school handbook says that while persons with felony convictions may not be employed by the school, there is no rule prohibiting parents with past felonies from attending events with their children. The school’s policy is to not allow persons with felony convictions from serving as chaperones.
“I think the word ‘unwritten’ rule is a bad one,” Vassar Public Schools Superintendent Tom Palmer said. “You can’t have an exact rule because you don’t know what you’re going to get. So many factors come into play when you do those background checks. They’re all different, so you take them on a one-by-one basis. So as a school we just say ‘If it’s a felony, we’re going to deny (the request to be a chaperone).
“There are other things you look for … things with kids, any kind of abusive behavior. You try to keep it as simple as possible.”
Hunkins will exercise his right to appeal the decision Monday in front of the Vassar School Board.
“That’s seven lay people from the community, and they’ll have to listen and ask questions,” Palmer said. “They hear an appeal, decide what it is, and then I get back with (the person appealing a decision) and let them know. This is a new one because we’ve never had anybody actually appeal it.
“Really, it is what it is. It’s all about safety for the students. We run those background checks like most schools do that. … Our first and foremost goal is always the safety of the kids.”
Hunkins accepts the consequences of the mistakes he made.
“Anybody who knows me knows I don’t hide from my past. My past is what made me what I am today,” Hunkins said. “(When I was younger) I didn’t give a rat’s (behind) about anybody. I’ll be the first to admit that. I thought I knew everything. And that’s the thing, following the wrong crowd I got hooked on drugs, and that’s what it was. When I got my last drunk driving (in 1999) I finally woke up one day and I was like, ‘This ain’t me, this can’t be my life.’ So I started to change, quit everything and went to rehab, found faith in the Lord. My mom was supporting me. I quit.
“And then I found my wife (Eva), and she’s been more of a rock than she’ll ever know, and she kept me that way. Then my son was born, and when you have a child, that’s when you get a whole new perspective on what the meaning of life is. That day I held him in my arms when he was born I told him, ‘I will be the best father I can be.’ And I’ve tried.”
Hunkins’ friend Jennifer David Sayles, a Yahoo! contributor, heard about the situation and wrote an article for Yahoo! Voices. The article circulated on the internet, and eventually television when WNEM interviewed Hunkins and Palmer on Thursday.
“We get to this point, and I’ve been drug-free for over 10 years,” Hunkins said. “It’s one of those things that, if it wasn’t for Jenny, I probably would have just vented my stuff on Facebook and swept it under the rug. But she was like, ‘No, this has got to get out.’
“Anybody who knows my character, especially now, knows I’m not a violent person and I’m all about my kids. And I know I’m not the only guy — whether in this community or another community — who is in the same position, who cannot do these things with their child because of something we did when we were kids.
“That was the first time he’d ever asked me to go on a field trip, and he was all excited. And then to come home and have to tell him ‘Daddy can’t go,’ and watch him run down to his room crying.
“And then have to try to explain to a 7-year-old that Daddy did something that was very bad years ago and now I can’t go with you. He doesn’t understand, and it’s hard to tell a 7-year-old.
“If I had a violent past, we would never be having this conversation. Or if my felony would have happened within the last seven, eight, nine years, then that’s understandable. But to go back 20 years to when I was 17 or 18? …
“To me there’s no real threat. Where am I a threat?”
Bill Petzold is a staff writer for the Tuscola County Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.