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New Orleans's Leading Local News: Weather, Traffic, Sports and more | New Orleans, Louisiana | WWLTV.com

Background check upsets Santa volunteer

Does a state law protect children from sex offenders who want to play Santa Claus at the local library, or does it make the innocent have to prove their innocence?
WWLTV

ST. JOHN, La. -- Does a state law protect children from sex offenders who want to play Santa Claus at the local library, or does it make the innocent have to prove their innocence?

One long time Santa says, for him personally, the law has gone too far.

For a decade, Russ Wise, a St. John the Baptist Parish school board member and president-elect of the Louisiana School Board Association, has volunteered as Santa. He needs no fake wig or beard, and jokes that in some of his five red suits, he doesn't need the fake belly padding either.

Each year, 3,000 children and animals sit on his lap at 40 venues. But this year, there will be one less.

"It just sits wrong with me," Wise said.

That's because in order to be compliant with a state law, the parish library system had to ask him if he was a child sex offender.

"I am not arguing against the law. I am not arguing against the reasoning behind the law. My own position is, I am philosophically opposed to having to prove I'm innocent," said Wise.

Louisiana law states that sex offenders who commit certain crimes cannot enter a library. At each library, administrators can determine how to make sure that doesn't happen.

St. John library administrators told us by phone that they value all volunteers but must comply with the law and cover all bases especially with children.

The St. John the Baptist Parish library says that right now all of its employees are going through criminal background checks.

"It looks more like this is a policy decision that was made by the library that they want to protect themselves. They want to protect, in their mind, the children who will be visiting with Mr. Wise, who will be portraying Santa Claus at the library," said Attorney Chick Foret, an Eyewitness News Legal Analyst.

The library is not demanding that Mr. Wise, or any volunteers, have a criminal background check.

Parents and teachers have mixed feelings about that. Pam Stein would not want children sitting on a sex offender's lap, but sees the other side.

"When your child or grandchild's on Santa's lap, you're there, so you can see what's going on," said Stein, a parent, grandparent and teacher.

"I actually do agree," said parent and teacher Monique Levron about the background check. "I feel children should feel safe around Santa, and I do feel that parents should also feel safe."

Wise said he had a criminal background check when he was a Cub Scout leader years ago, because unlike playing Santa, Cub Scout leaders spend time with the children away from their parents.