• from AASPA Perspective, August-October, 2004 - "What Can You Do To Protect Your School From Predators"

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What Can You Do To Protect Your School From Predators

August-October, 2004

by William L. Bainbridge and William R. Mason, Jr.

Many crimes against children could easily be avoided if our schools would adopt reliable screening tools to verify applicant information on all prospective employees. We have been concerned for many years about the over-confidence that school officials place solely in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and state Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) systems of school employee background checks.

Unfortunately, reliance on these systems alone has resulted in headlines that are, sadly, very familiar to all of us:

"Bus driver charged with sex crime."

"Teacher uses false credentials to do it again."

"Coach alleged to have sexual relations with players."

"Teacher fondles child."

""Custodian molests boys."

"Parents file sexual harassment suit."

In police departments throughout the country, office personnel spend much of their time fingerprinting individuals for all sorts of licenses for various agencies around the country. While this process may seem logical, a huge hole appears in the procedures used by the FBI and BCI. Their efforts to weed out sexual predators, embezzlers and other threats to our children’s schools are predicated on flawed procedures that could be circumvented by any middle school child.

One flaw is that often no one is checking the identity of the persons being fingerprinted to receive licenses and certificates that qualify them to work with our children. Any person can buy a fingerprint kit at a SPY shop and with little training be able to accurately obtain a fingerprint. Another flaw is that agencies quite commonly put applicants in charge of managing their own fingerprinting process.

Too many communities throughout the country have learned the hard way the tragic consequences of making ill-informed school system hiring decisions. This issue has had extremely high visibility. Both 48 Hours on CBS and NBC’s Nightly News have addressed the abhorrent practice of allowing predators to move from school to school and state to state. The practice is so common it has a name - - "passing the trash." Nevertheless, most school systems continue to use outdated practices and have not taken advantage of modern employment industry screening services.

If our objective is to keep "bad guys and gals" out of the schools, current procedures obviously don't work. At the very least, what is needed is an independent validation of school employee identity. Most school systems in the United States do not conduct thorough employee background checks that include low cost procedures that could reveal identity deception. School systems need to implement a process that incorporates social security verification, county courthouse criminal record searches, civil record searches and employee drug testing.

In drug testing, for example, reputable commercial testing firms follow a "chain of custody" procedure where everyone involved in the process signs a chain of custody form to tie the specimen collected back to the form Each person documents the handling of the sample and reporting to ensure that the test will hold up under legal scrutiny.

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

How can this happen? Are the best practices in place to identify and select well qualified and reputable candidates for employment in schools? 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, making it difficult to detect their trails of misconduct.

Those doing the hiring may not always be to blame. In our years as school administrators and consultants, we have found school human resource specialists to be generally among the most competent of professionals. The procedures, however, that are routinely employed 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. In a recent survey, we were stunned to learn that most schools continue to use outdated practices and do not take advantage of modern employment industry screening services.

Clearly, school administrators need a quick, inexpensive, simple way to check the credentials, backgrounds and employment histories of every potential employee. Commercial employment screening provides completed reports in minutes as opposed to weeks and months with the FBI check. 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 provide their human resource administrators with valuable information to make informed decisions about filling important positions with the best people. Few schools use the processes in place in most private companies.

More thorough background screening would create safer schools, save precious resources, eliminate emotionally draining investigations and reduce public relations "salvage operations."

Our children deserve nothing less.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

William R. Mason, Jr. is a principal of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio, - based consulting firm advocating public interests through educational research and evaluation. Mason was twice President of the Ohio Association of School Personnel Administrators.

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