Monday, September 22, 1997

School district screens prospective staff: Columbia makes the checks even though the state does not mandate them

Published in the Columbia Missourian

The Columbia Public School District takes your children's safety seriously. Though Missouri is one of 12 states that does not mandate any criminal background checks on prospective school employees, the district performs these checks on all new school employees and volunteers, including substitute teachers. The lone exception is parents who serve as volunteers in classrooms.

The district has never had a problem with former criminals in schools, said Gene Huff, district director of personnel.

Local background checks are done by both the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Clarence M. Kelley and Associates, a private investigative and consulting firm in Kansas City.

If an applicant is from Missouri, the Highway Patrol performs the pre-employment check, which includes Missouri Department of Family Services child abuse and neglect records.

Kelley and Associates handles out-of-state background checks and reports information from agencies in places the subject has lived or worked.

Each report provides information on a subject's criminal background, including offenses against children. Pending cases, convictions and sentences are reported; " not guilty" verdicts are not part of anyone's criminal record.

The report turnaround time is quick, said Darren Dupriest, investigations manager at Kelley and Associates, because his clients have employers and job applicants waiting for the results. "Three to four days is pushing their envelope," he said. The Highway Patrol check takes 14 days, said June Baker, assistant director of criminal records and identification. The Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Unit of the Department of Family Services report takes about 10 working days, said Martha Witt, a social services supervisor for the department. Both attributed the timetable to the paperwork involved.

Three factors influence the hiring decision: any infractions committed, the frequency of convictions and when the offenses occurred.

Although background checks are only done before hiring, school personnel who commit crimes during employment should consider their jobs in jeopardy, Huff said. Each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said. A decision to fire would require a conviction, rather than an allegation or formal charge. The seriousness of the crime also is a factor, Huff said.

Kelley and Associates can perform different kinds of background checks for clients, including verification of work experience and educational credentials, Dupriest said.

Also, because Dupriest's case managers have law enforcement experience, they can assist clients in understanding the information in the reports the firm delivers.

"We report whatever's publicly accessible within the guidelines of applicable laws," Dupriest said.

Because the Columbia school district is a new client of the investigative firm, Dupriest said he was unable to comment on the frequency of requests from Columbia.

He did say school districts are regular requesters of pre-employment background checks.

All applicants for Missouri teacher certification must declare a felony conviction, said David Adams, assistant director of teacher certification at the Missouri Department of Education.

Failure to truthfully declare a criminal history is perjury.

The Missouri Department of Education shares lists of revoked teaching certifications with other members of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, Adams said. Although the monthly list of new revocations is large, the number of Missouri teachers affected is low - fewer than three in an average year, Adams said.

The state doesn't mandate background checks because it expects school districts to properly investigate applicants on their own, said State Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia.

Until there is evidence the system isn't working, there is no need to place additional restrictions on school districts, she said. "It's one of the things we leave to local control."