Archive for Monday, July 23, 2001

Crime checks get thumbs up

District expected to keep fingerprinting applicants

July 23, 2001

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Job applicants covering up their criminal history won't get a break from the Lawrence school district.

While a state law mandating national fingerprint record checks of new public school employees expired June 30, the Lawrence district is expected to continue the practice at its own expense.

In the past year, fingerprint checks revealed 4.3 percent of 182 applicants for district jobs were convicted of a crime. Of the eight people identified through national crime records, five either resigned or were terminated. Three kept their jobs.

Mary Rodriguez, the district's executive director of human resources, said she would recommend to the school board that fingerprint checks remain standard procedure. The program costs about $14,000 annually.

"We want to ensure that we have quality staff," Rodriguez said.

Sue Morgan, school board president, supports the recommendation.

"We don't want to put people in classrooms or school buildings whose background might indicate they could endanger children in any way," Morgan said.

The district's authority to access the national criminal history database will be derived from existing federal law.

Nationally, fingerprints are a growing component of public school security and safety programs.

In Kentucky, state law requires all school volunteers to pass a criminal records check. Districts can request a fingerprint check from state police.

Images of tiny ridges on index fingers of Pennsylvania school children are used to allow pupils in three districts to pay for lunches without carrying cash. Minnesota students are issued textbooks and check out library books with a fingerprint scanner.

For now, Supt. Randy Weseman said the Lawrence district would limit fingerprint checks to job applicants teachers, secretaries, janitors who had not lived in Kansas continuously for 10 years.

"We need to know we're getting the kind of individual we would all want our kids to be with," Weseman said.

Cindy Kelly, an attorney with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said she expected a majority of the state's 304 districts to drop fingerprint background checks.

"With some districts, it's been problematic. There have been problems getting clear fingerprints," she said.

The Kansas Department of Education also will conduct its background checks on people seeking a Kansas teaching certificate.

David Sim, a special agent in charge with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said hundreds of applicants to Kansas school districts were found to have criminal records.

Records for the entire 2000-2001 fiscal year aren't available, but a report covering seven months shows the fingerprint searches paid off, he said.

Of 5,540 job applicants who had their fingerprints checked from July 2000 to January 2001, 374 or 6.7 percent had been in trouble with the law.

A search by the KBI of Kansas records showed 250 were involved in crimes in this state, Sim said.

When the collection of fingerprints was passed along to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a national computer search, 124 more job applicants were found to have convictions in other states.

"We found one person who had interfered with a flight crew. There was an attempted murder," Sim said.

From a law enforcement perspective, Sim said national background checks permitted by fingerprinting applicants were a solid investment for school districts.

"We handed out some very good information," he said.

Rodriguez said confidentiality rules prohibited her from identifying criminal records of the eight Lawrence applicants or disclosing whether these individuals sought teaching or noncertified staff jobs.

The district ordered nonfingerprint background checks on 672 staff, including 250 substitute teachers, in the 2000-2001 school year. Kansas law mandated that 182 be subjected to fingerprint analysis because of the residency requirement.

Of the 115 classified and 67 certified applicants fingerprinted, eight turned up with criminal histories.

Individuals convicted of serious offenses first-degree murder, child abuse or a dozen other crimes are denied employment. Not everyone with a criminal record is unwelcome in the state's public school districts, Rodriguez said.

Factors taken into account: time, nature and number of convictions; facts surrounding the offense; employment history before and after conviction; and efforts at rehabilitation.

"We also look at what the conviction was ... and its relationship to the job," Rodriguez said. "If someone was convicted of theft and is in a position to have keys, that would not be a good deal."

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