from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota-Are Schools Really Safe from Predators

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Are Schools Really Safe from Predators?

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

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August 5, 2003

Too many communities throughout the country have learned the hard way the tragic consequences of making ill-informed school district hiring decisions.

This issue has had extremely high visibility. Over five years ago, on April 16, 1998, Dan Rather featured a segment entitled, "Teacherís Pet" on CBSí 48 Hours. NBCís Tom Brokaw presented a similar expose, "Making the Grade" on October 8, 1998. Both features by Americaís preeminent news anchors addressed the abhorrent practice of allowing predators to move from school district to school district and state to state. The practice is so common it is 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 Nevertheless, most school systems continue to use outdated practices and have not taken advantage of modern employment industry screening services.

Continuing to gnaw at us is the thought that many crimes against children could easily be avoided if our schools would adopt reliable screening tools to verify applicant information on all prospective employees. The challenge to parents and guardians is to find out if their children attend schools where employees are effectively screened and properly identified using tools that go beyond the existing federal FBI and state BCI searches.

Along with our colleagues, we have been concerned for many years about the over-confidence that school boards and administrators place in the FBI and state BCI systems of school employee background checks. School officials have been encouraged by state and federal agencies and associations to use these systems. 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."

"Administrator charged with sexual misconduct with student."

"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 agencies around the country. They then often distribute a simple disclaimer letter. One such disclaimer reads:

The police department "provides the service of fingerprinting individuals presenting themselves to us for various reasons. Although the attached fingerprints were taken here, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that the person we fingerprint is the same person they are hiring. Fingerprinting cards should be completed with all information verified by the employer (i.e., name, social security number, date of birth, place of birth, etc.). It is not the responsibility of the division of police to verify ID."

While this process may seem logical, a huge hole appears in the procedures used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the state Bureaus of Criminal Identification (BCI) or other state agencies and local school districts. Their efforts to weed out sexual predators, embezzlers and other threats to our childrenís schools are predicated on a flawed procedure that could be circumvented by any middle school child.

The flaw is that nobody 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 finger print kit at a SPY shop and with little training be able to accurately obtain a fingerprint.

Another gap in the system is that agencies quite commonly put applicants in charge of managing their own fingerprinting process. They often direct candidates to go to any law enforcement agency in the country, have their fingerprints taken and mail the fingerprint card back to them. In many jurisdictions no one asks for any identification of any type. Any applicant could be a convicted felon, and could send a friend, relative, or paid accomplice to be fingerprinted. In addition, the document could have easily been altered because it is not received directly form the law enforcement agency. The procedure allows the applicant to maintain control of the evidence. Moreover, agencies seldom even keep a copy of the fingerprint document for subsequent verification.

If our objective is to keep "bad guys and gals" out of the schools, the current procedures obviously won'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, and employee drug testing.

In drug testing reputable commercial testing firms follow "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. The parties involved are: the donor, the collector, the courier shipping the sample, the lab technician accessioning the sample, the lab scientist analyzing the sample and the medical review officer who interprets the results. Each person documents the handling of the sample and reporting to ensure that the test will hold up under legal scrutiny.

We would all be appalled if applicants/employees were allowed to go anywhere to provide a urine specimen and not provide identify confirmation. Even medical offices confirm identity prior to collecting a urine sample. The result of incompetence in drug testing would be a lot of drug abusing people working in jobs which could be a potential safety hazard. Imagine a pilot who flies a commercial airliner, if given the opportunity to go anywhere to submit a sample with no identity confirmation? Mass chaos would be the result.

The biggest problem in the school employment arena is 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 provide school personnel much greater knowledge and control in hiring decisions.

The reason background checks are as important as drug testing is that derogatory information is available for longer time periods than drugs stay in a personís system. This casual method of ensuring a personís identity has to be taken more seriously. Did we not learn something from 9/11? Most of the hijackers had obtained false credentials, which in some way enabled them to perpetrate their dastardly mission.

We need to feel secure in the knowledge that every effort has been made to select people with the highest qualifications and most impeccable character possible to nurture our kids at school.

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 responses: 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, 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.

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 had been accused of similar behavior in a previous position thirteen years earlier.

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, making 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?

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 have not taken advantage of modern employment industry screening services.

Clearly, school administrators need a quick, 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. Virtually no schools use the processes in place in most Fortune 500 companies, small businesses or consulting firms. These 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 thorough background screening knowledge extends 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.

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William L. Bainbridge and William R. Mason, Jr. are principals 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 and Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton.

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