Audit discovers criminals working in schools

Education » Probe labels Utah's vetting of employees as 'flawed and ineffective'
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Public school employees with convictions for felony sex assault, indecent exposure, drug possession and aggravated assault turned up in a legislative probe that labels Utah's system for vetting such workers "flawed and ineffective."

Auditors, who randomly chose 1,209 people, found 17 school employees with so-called "concerning" criminal convictions either before or after they were hired, and sometimes both. The criminal histories surfaced in a limited survey of Jordan, Granite, Davis and Salt Lake school district rosters -- only a sliver of more than 70,000 school employees statewide, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding.

But the random sample's size only "magnifies" the problem, said Brian Dean, an audit supervisor in the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

Dean faulted gaps in Utah law, education policy and lack of follow-through by state and local authorities. Lawmakers on Tuesday approved a motion to send copies of the report to subcommittees for review and action.

Expressing "sincere appreciation" for the teachers, guidance counselors and custodians who "do their jobs honorably," House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the failure to crack down on "outliers" devalues most school employees' good work.

Utah education officials vowed to tighten rules governing background checks. But those efforts will come at a price -- up to $2.6 million, they warned. And no criminal screening is perfect.

But "we intend to take action immediately," said state Superintendent Patti Harrington.

Auditors sampled the 1,209 employees at 32 Utah schools and found 49 with criminal convictions. Of those, 17 had felonies, convictions involving drugs, alcohol, violence, sex-related crimes and multiple arrests suggesting a pattern of criminal behavior.

That's a crime rate of 1.4 percent, "three times greater" than was found for bus drivers in a similar probe last year, investigators noted.

Most were classified workers, such as secretaries, custodians and lunch-room managers. But some of the employees pegged in the audit were teachers, psychologists and guidance counselors who have unsupervised contact with students.

And they are likely still employed; their identities remain unknown to district officials.

"We can't dismiss or review employees we don't have names for," said Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley.

Legislative Auditor General John Schaff won't release names on the advice of his attorney. But he said the districts are free to contact the Department of Public Safety, which conducted the background checks and retains a "hit list."

Nothing but cost prohibits districts from periodically screening all employees. They screen all new hires, but rely on law enforcement and employees to disclose new arrests and charges. Teachers are also screened upon licensure by the state.

Auditors contend those checks and balances don't work, and a more rigorous system was never developed.

A 1999 law directed the Utah Department of Public Safety to maintain a data file of school employees for cross-referencing against arrest. But that never happened, they say. The data file was supposed to be funded by fees collected by the Utah Office of Education.

What's more, an estimated 9,000 teachers hired before 1994 have never been screened. Those people were given background checks only if there was reasonable cause, according to state law.

Classified school staff hired before 1994 also were not subject to checks. A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of the five largest school districts shows 26 percent, or 9,210, fall into that category.

Auditors are recommending that local school districts run periodic criminal screenings, that employees be required to self-disclose arrests, and that the data file be created as required by law.

They also suggest that lawmakers weigh legislation authorizing schools to screen all pre-1994 hires. And they highlight the need for defining crimes that would preclude someone from employment.

Under Utah law, teachers will lose their license if they are convicted of a criminal offense against a child or they engage in sexually explicit conduct with a student. But unlike other Western states, Utah does not automatically disqualify job prospects with suspect histories.

Schools take sexual offenses, drug offenses, felonies and other serious crimes into consideration, but weigh applicants' backgrounds on a case-by-case basis, said Carol Lear, law and legislative director at the State Office of Education.

Using the example of a teacher candidate with two DUIs that happened in college 10 years earlier, Lear asked, "Should that person be denied?"

Investigators say the absence of hard rules leads to confusion.

They note instances in which the professional review committee charged with licensing teachers OK'd a license assuming the person would be fully vetted by a hiring school district. Meanwhile, districts believed licensure meant the teacher was suitable for employment.

Underscoring that "student safety is goal No. 1," Harrington said she will work with lawmakers to make necessary changes to state law and ask the Utah Board of Education to consider requiring periodic checks of all school employees. A data file is under way, which she hopes will suffice to avoid the cost of running FBI screens, at $34 each.

Harrington stressed that, although auditors discovered a few "aberrant" cases, "children are very safe in our schools."