"Screening New Employees: Fingerprint Records are a Good First Step." By William L. Bainbridge and William R. Mason. Recruiting the Best. March 2000.



By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and William R. Mason

States across the nation have taken the important first step in protecting children and school employees by enacting legislation and procedures that require pre-employment fingerprinting and criminal background checks for potential school employees. These actions are commendable, and provide concrete progress toward securing safe environments for our children at school.

But what happens if an applicant for employment in a school district has not been convicted of any crimes yet has harmed children or fellow employees in the past?

Or what about applicants who have lied about their backgrounds, or taken on false identities to cover up past behavior, as have been documented in school districts from coast to coast?

According to the FBIís National Crime Information Center (NCIC), used by law enforcement agencies for checking backgrounds on suspects, there are over one half million outstanding warrants in this country, the vast majority for accused felons. Obviously, courts cannot render a decision if law enforcement officials do not deliver the suspect for trial. Consequently, these same people can seek and gain school district employment because they have no record of convictions.

It is a frightening truth that unscrupulous school employees do sometimes get away with reprehensible behavior. A recent situation is a good example. A former teacher was convicted of assaulting a fourth-grader nearly twenty years after he had been accused of similar crimes, but was allowed to resign without prosecution or termination. In the original case from the early 1980s, a psychologist recommended the teacher be permitted to resign in order to avoid being labeled a child molester. Records show only that the teacher left the district "for personal reasons." He was rehired eight years later by the same district. Shockingly, the School Board again offered to allow this person to resign, but when he refused, fired him.

When the first accusations occurred, school districts in that state did not have to report such incidents. This teacherís behavior was only finally uncovered because a new state law requires districts that happen to have knowledge about arrests to report them to the stateís certification board.

More recently, a teacher/coach who was accused of assaulting one of his students said he would end his fight against dismissal if the school district allowed him to retain his retirement and sick leave benefits. The superintendent recommended the school board accept the teacherís proposal because it would save the district thousands of dollars in legal fees. If this teacher applies for employment in another district, no criminal convictions would turn up against him.

Such a practice is called, "passing the trash," according to a recent report by Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News. Districts often permit employees who have been accused of indecent behavior to resign, and even sometimes appear to provide positive recommendations to future potential employers. The NBC report quotes David Rubin, former president of the National Council of School Attorneys, who said the reason bad teachers get passed around is simple: "For a quick commendation, they can get the employee out of the district and off to another location without having to spend taxpayerís money for expensive litigation."

Unfortunately, while one school district might rid itself of an embarrassing and expensive legal hassle, another district will end up with an accused abuser in its classrooms.

Even when school districts try to identify risky employees, devious applicants sometimes slip through a criminal background check. In one example, a state department of education warned school districts of a former teacher who had used a false name and social security number to fraudulently obtain a teaching certificate after her first certificate had been revoked. Her original certificate was revoked when it was proven she had falsified college transcripts on her applications. Currently, officials believe the same person is applying to other school systems around the state, using yet another name. This person has never been convicted of these crimes, so her behavior would not appear on a criminal background check.

In another case, an elementary principal was permitted to resign last year when it was discovered that he was living under a false identity. In the past he had been accused of a crime under another name, with another social security number. He had stolen his current name and social security number from a deceased person. A criminal background check alone would not have revealed this discrepancy.

While required criminal background checks are necessary and laudable steps toward ensuring childrenís safety, they are clearly not enough. When school officials access only state and FBI databases to evaluate school applicants for employment, they fail to obtain, "the rest of the story." That is precisely why sophisticated, computerized background screening programs implemented by most Fortune 500 companies are being introduced to school systems.

In addition to a criminal record check, districts need to conduct searches of public records to help identify persons who may have no criminal records but have histories of unscrupulous conduct and abusive behavior. Additionally, social security record verification can determine if the applicants are who they say they are. An employment history verification can determine how well the person performed on the job and reveal whether he or she provided false information on an application. Cross-referencing of pre-employment screens reveals gaps in employment and additional addresses a candidate may have purposely not reported. Such extensive checks have been endorsed by state school board and superintendent associations.

If school districts and state legislatures are serious about protecting school children, they need to take the next important step to require multiple-screen comprehensive pre-employment background checks and assure the quality of new employees.