New screening system flags school workers with criminal histories

Education » But confusion over state law hampers efforts to verify arrests, convictions
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It took 10 years.

But public safety officials finally test drove a criminal databank for vetting Utah's public school employees, turning up about 500 workers with possible arrests and convictions. That's less than 1 percent of the state's educational workforce, which exceeds 70,000.

And the results are preliminary. School districts must still verify employee identities and decide which crimes merit sanction or dismissal -- a momentous task, especially considering they aren't yet privy to the findings.

Public safety officials aren't sure they have the legal authority to turn over the information, said Bureau of Criminal Identification chief Alice Erickson. Some school employees who appear to have criminal histories were hired before 1994 when districts started requiring criminal screens, said Erickson, who doesn't know what percentage fall under that category.

"These people never signed a waiver agreeing to submit to a background check," said Erickson.

The state's top education lawyer disagrees.

A 1999 law that directed public safety to build the databank is permission enough, believes Carol Lear, law and legislation director at the Utah State Office of Education.

The databank was never built, an oversight exposed in an April 2009 legislative probe which turned up school employees with criminal convictions and labeled systems for vetting workers "flawed and ineffective."

Public safety officials subsequently set to work building a system for running state-level checks on all current employees by comparing names and birth dates to arrest and convictions data going back to the 1960s. They are also fingerprinting employees, the first step toward more robust, national FBI screens, which could take a year or longer.

But with the state databank now fully operational, Lear sees no reason for further delay.

State law permits districts to screen existing employees for "reasonable cause," provided employees are notified. But Lear argues the legislative probe, news coverage and recent changes to school hiring practices "should serve as ample notice."

Utah Public Safety Commissioner Lance Davenport will meet today with Lear to clear up the matter. They'll also discuss how often data sorts will be run, daily or monthly, and who will have access to the findings.

"The law sort of suggests that information on classified employees be sent to our office, which doesn't make sense. We license teachers, but have nothing to do with the hiring of non-teaching personnel," said Lear.

School districts await the outcome, though they're not exactly sure what they'll do with public safety's list of names when they get it.

Officials from five of the larger districts have been brainstorming a uniform policy for what crimes might preclude someone from employment, said Granite human resources director Mike Fraser.

They hope to havea proposal ready in a few weeks and will encourage all 41 districts to sign on. A draft of the proposal gives districts "sole and absolute discretion" to determine whether a person is employable.

Those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis with "the safety and security of students" foremost in mind, said Fraser.

Factors to consider might include the frequency and severity of a crime, its relevance to a person's job, the amount of time that has passed, and the age of the person at the time the crime was committed.

"If I've got a 25-year-old teacher convicted of an alcohol offense when he was 19 and going to USU, I'm not going to hold that against him forever," said Fraser. "But if he had one when he was 21 and another at 22 and 23 and I feel he might have a substance abuse problem, I'd look into that."

In addition, non-teaching staff would have to notify their district if they are arrested or convicted of a sex crime or drug- or alcohol-related offense, the draft policy says.