"Our Children Deserve Safer Schools." By William L. Bainbridge. Education Week.
January 1999.

OUR CHILDREN DESERVE SAFER SCHOOLS

by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Recent actions of prosecutors and government officials throughout the country have jeopardized the safety of school children.

In a recent case in Columbus, for example, a teacher was charged with two counts of sexual battery stemming from an alleged 15 month affair with a student. In pre-trial bargaining, prosecutors dismissed criminal charges in exchange for the teacher withdrawing her application to renew her state teaching license. While the prosecutor said, the teacher was "...not fit to be in the classroom," the remedy merely ignored the behavior. This teacher would appear to be free to make application for a teaching position anywhere else!

We know of at least seven Ohio cases where teachers who should have had certificates revoked have negotiated settlements resulting in "voluntary non-renewal" rather than mandatory certificate revocation. Such soft-handed treatment of school employees charged with unconscienable behavior has created a national crisis. Local attempts to negotiate settlements with sexual predators or other misguided adults in single school jurisdictions have placed the rest of our nation's children in jeopardy, since those who voluntarily non-renew their teaching certificate can go on to teach in other states. Such actions shed a knotty problem for a locality, but create ominous consequences for the rest of the nation's students.

Too many communities throughout the country have learned the hard way the tragic consequences of making ill-informed school district hiring decisions. The news media is doing its part. Newspapers throughout the country have run exposes on this problem. NBC and CBS news chief anchors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather have recently highlighted the problem. It's time for state and local school officials to catch up with the private sector in employment practices. We need to feel secure in the knowledge that every effort has been made to select people with the highest qualifications and most impecable character possible to nurture our kids at school. Children deserve safe schools.

Ask any parent or school official what they expect from someone who works with children in a school and you're likely to get similar reponses: School employees should be qualified for their jobs, contribute to the effective functioning of the school system, and provide children with safe, successful educational experiences. Parents and school officials would also agree, no doubt, that school employees should behave ethically and morally, and should maintain reputations that are beyond reproach within the community.

Imagine how parents in the Cleveland Public Schools must have felt when 22 school employees were removed from their jobs pending investigations of unreported criminal activities and falsified applications. The dirty laundry was revealed in the school system's closet by the local news media.

Consider what the families of children in another school went through when they learned their school's principal had been removed for alleged illegal activities involving a minor - - one of his own students. Even worse, newspaper reports revealed this same person was accused of similar behavior in a previous position thirteen years ago.

One of the biggest problems in the school employment arena appears to be applicants with false identities. The right applicant for a job working with children should be a willing participant in the employment and background verification process. If minor questions arise about past employment or activities, a good candidate should be willing to talk openly and honestly in interviews with hiring personnel. Mitigating circumstances could be considered. Most importantly, any candidate with a serious, potentially damaging problem in working with children - - such as false credentials or criminal convictions - - could be screened out. In any case, a thorough background check with cross-referenced multiple screens would give school personnel much greater knowledge and control in hiring decisions.

How can these kinds of things happen? Surely the best practices are in place to identify and select well qualified and reputable candidates for employment in schools. Or are they? Unfortunately, unscrupulous people do migrate to schools. They hide information, list false credentials or identities on resumes and even use bogus social security numbers. Some lie outright, others evade, some may travel from district to district or state to state, leaving it difficult to detect their trails of misconduct. Surely, school district officials have the best tools to identify and select well qualified and reputable candidates for employment. Or do they?

Regretably, few school districts or state education agencies have adequate procedures to thoroughly check backgrounds of such individuals. Unlike the private sector, schools tend to have limited safeguards to protect their most precious resource - our children.

Those doing the hiring may not always be to blame. In my years as a school administrator and consultant, I have found school human resource specialists to be generally among the most competent of professionals. The procedures, however, that exist for checking applicants' backgrounds are difficult to assess and dreadfully inadequate. School hiring officials just haven't had the best tools to use to uncover serious potential problems.

Clearly, school administrators need a quick, simple way to check the credentials, backgrounds and employment histories of every potential employee. In a recent survey, we were stunned to learn that most schools continue to use outdated practices and have not taken advantage of modern employment industry data services.

FBI background checks, for example, are spotty at best and only available for certain states. That system relies upon the voluntary reporting of courts in participating states. Many efforts to check backgrounds don't review civil litigation, false identities, financial or even criminal records. Because thorough background checks are not available, some candidates are hired on the basis of an application only, with perhaps a cursory call to a previous employer.

Most private sector firms use "employment screening services" to give their human resource administrators valuable information to use to make informed decisions about filling important positions with the best people. Virtually no schools use the processes in place in most Fortune 500 companies, small businesses or consulting firms. Private firms generally use services governed by the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. This law is designed to promote accuracy, fairness and privacy of information in the files of every "consumer reporting agency."

The benefits of this knowledge would extend far beyond the specific position being filled. Existing school employees would be assured they are working in secure environments in which their skills are valued, and in which all employees are expected to uphold the schools' mission and the community's high standards. The school or school system would be saved from wasting scarce time and resources on costly, emotionally draining investigations and public relations "salvage operations." Families would be able to place faith in a school system that does all it can to ensure the safest, most enriching educational environment.

Our children deserve nothing less.


William L. Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch, a Westerville-based consulting firm advocating public interests through educational research and evaluation.