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Plan To Fingerprint Florida Teachers Sparks Debate

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Gov. Robert Graham of Florida, in an attempt to keep child abusers out of the classroom, is supporting proposed legislation that would require first-time applicants for teaching jobs in the state to be fingerprinted before they could receive certification.

The fingerprints would be checked against criminal prints on file with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

See related stories on pages 8 and 9.

Only three states and the city of New York now have the authority to check the fingerprints of teachers against the prints of approximately 22 million individuals with serious criminal records on file with the fbi, said William Garvie, an agent in the fbi identification division.

That authority is recognized, he said, only if a state has a law, approved by the U.S. Attorney General, that allows for the exchange of information with the fbi as a condition for licensing or employment in a particular occupation or profession. To do a criminal-background check for those purposes, Mr. Garvie said, the fbi accepts only fingerprints. Name, social security number, driver's license number, and other descriptive data, he said, are not accepted.

The states authorized to run federal fingerprint checks of teachers for licensing or employment purposes, Mr. Garvie said, are California, Nevada, and Texas, although state education officials in Texas maintain that they do not require, or submit to the fbi, fingerprints of teachers.

Officials of both major teachers' unions say they are unaware of the extent to which the fingerprinting of teachers occurs at the national, state, and local levels. "It's a local issue," said James Ward, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, "and unless one of our affiliates asks for staff assistance, we wouldn't necessarily be aware of it."

'Invasion of Privacy'

Opposed to the proposed legislation in Florida are the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Teaching Profession, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

aclu officials maintain that fingerprinting is "an invasion of an individual's privacy and right of anonymity." ftp officials say it is demeaning and unnecessary, and wrongfully focuses attention on teachers, who are not responsible for the high incidence of child abuse.

Nevertheless, Patrick Riordan, deputy press secretary for Governor Graham, said: "There is a valid state purpose in making certain that anyone with a criminal record of child abuse is not permitted into the classroom as a teacher."

"There are a small number of child abusers who have sought cover as teachers and we must eliminate that," Mr. Riordan said. Governor Graham "is not saying that there's a huge problem. It's essentially a loophole that a small number of child molesters have slipped through [for the purpose] of furthering their access to children for abusive purposes. There's an infinitesimally small number, but even one is too many."

Closing 'Loopholes'

The bill that proposes to close that "loophole" is HB 969, introduced by Fred Lippman. The bill has cleared the House Education Committee. A similar bill, SB 677, has been introduced by Senator Kenneth C. Jenne. It cleared the Senate Education Committee last week.

The proposed legislation--which ftp official Tay Green says has an "excellent chance of passage"--would require each first-time applicant for teacher certification to file a set of fingerprints with state certification officials. Representative Lippman's bill would also require each applicant to pay the $5 fee necessary to run a state check of the prints and the $12 fee necessary to run a federal check.

The legislation would also allow local school officials to fingerprint substitute teachers, who are not required to be certified. Superintendents would be required to report to the Florida Department of Education the names of people found to have been convicted, or found to have pleaded no contest, to misdemeanors, felonies, "or any other criminal charge other than a minor traffic offense."

"Anyone who is licensed to be in the classroom with our children should be able to withstand a review to determine whether that person has had a felony conviction for child abuse, or some similar offense, that would raise serious questions about that person's fitness to work with children," said Roni Schlichte, a legislative aide to Representative Lippman.

According to Ms. Schlichte, the law is directed at the 10,000 to 15,000 first-time applicants for teacher certification in Florida each year. About 70 percent of Florida's 90,000 full-time public-school teachers come from outside the state, she said, and therefore a federal check of fingerprints is necessary to ensure that an applicant does not have a criminal record in another state.

Mr. Green, governmental relations coordinator for the ftp, maintains, however, that fingerprinting is unnecessary for two reasons: The incidence of child abuse in the classroom is slight, and school officials can do an adequate background check without fingerprints.

Mr. Green said that school administrators and personnel officers could do a better and more thorough job of conducting background checks by reviewing an applicant's credentials and letters of recommendation, and by calling an applicant's university and former employer.

"We think [fingerprinting] is unnecessary, but we don't look very good opposing this bill because it's an emotional issue," Mr. Green said. "Most child abuse occurs within the family unit. Here you're singling out the teacher, who is in a glass bowl with the children all day anyway. During the school day, the teacher and the children are under constant observation. [The teachers] are not with the children behind locked doors."

'Damage Innocent People'

Mr. Green also noted that the bill has the potential to "damage innocent people," such as those who might have participated in demonstrations on college campuses, or who might have been involved in "college pranks," such as "streaking and mooning."

"People do make mistakes, especially in their college days, and that could be embarrassing if it's brought out into the public," Mr. Green said. "Child abusers are sick people and they need to be identified and the children need to be protected. But you do not need to damage innocent people in the process and this bill has that potential."

Teacher-Conduct Cases

Donald L. Greisheimer, executive director of Florida's Education Practices Commission, said last week that so far in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 72 cases involving the conduct of teachers have been filed with the commissioner of education for administrative review. Of those, eight came to light as a result of fingerprints that were taken in Duval County, which has a policy of making fingerprint checks of teachers at the local level.

Another 13 cases, Mr. Greisheimer said, could probably have been detected if fingerprints had been required.

Of the 72 cases requiring an administrative review, about 30 involved some kind of sexual misconduct, ranging from "inappropriate language, to inappropriate touching, to having sex with a student," Mr. Greisheimer said. Of the 21 cases that involved or could have involved fingerprints, Mr. Greisheimer said he could remember only one that was sexually related. It was, he said, a charge of indecent exposure.

The Education Practices Commission rules on the findings of administrative hearings in cases in which the commissioner of education finds probable cause that a teacher has, among other things, been incompetent or has violated the principles of professional conduct.

Other reasons a teacher can be subject to license revocation or suspension by the commission include gross immorality, fraudulently receiving a certificate, and conviction for a criminal offense other than a minor traffic offense.

While agreeing that the percentage of cases brought against Florida's 90,000 teachers for sexually related acts is very small, Mr. Greisheimer said he would still like to see the proposed fingerprinting legislation on the books.

"If it just keeps one kid from being injured by a teacher or an administrator, it will be worth it," Mr. Greisheimer said. "There's nothing worse than going in and picking up the pieces after your kid's been molested."

Problem in the Home

Richard Layer, director of governmental services for the Florida Education Association/United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed. "If this helps curtail any type of child abuse or child molesting, naturally we're for it. But it's not going to," Mr. Layer said. "The real problem is not within the schools. The real problem is happening outside the school, primarily in the home."

Mr. Layer said the fea would have fought the law "tooth and nail" if it had required all teachers to be fingerprinted, instead of just those seeking first-time certification.

But submitting any teacher to fingerprint checks, said Nola Conn, a legislative lobbyist for the aclu of Florida, is an "invasion of an individual's privacy and right of anonymity."

Ms. Conn said the aclu policy manual specifically states that "the employment of public-school teach-ers is not an area in which fingerprinting is permissible."

According to the manual, "the fingerprinting of teachers would be proper only if used for the detection of cheating in license examination and then only if the prints are not sent on to be filed with the fbi or local police." The manual further states, Ms. Conn said, that "were fingerprinting to be carried out indiscriminately, the individual's freedom of movement might be easily curbed. Minority groups and aliens would be subject to closer surveillance, and the way would be prepared for labor blacklists, police blackmail and frame-up, and eventually search without warrant and denial of habeas corpus."

Big Business

Nevertheless, using fingerprints to check a prospective employee's criminal background has become a big business for the fbi

According to Mr. Garvie, the fbi processed more than 6.2 million fingerprint cards in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1983. About half of those, Mr. Garvie said, were the prints of people who had been arrested by law-enforcement officials.

The other half, however, were "civil" fingerprints, including those of immigrants, federal employees, military personnel, and others who needed background checks for licensing or employment.

Among those required to be fingerprinted in Florida are lawyers, firefighters, real-estate brokers, detectives, policemen, bail bondsmen, and stock brokers. Fingerprinting is also required, among other things, to obtain any kind of racing permit; to manufacture, bottle, sell, and distribute alcoholic beverages; and to obtain a license to carry concealed firearms.

Other Action

In other areas of the country:

California has required for about 15 years the fingerprinting of any new applicant for a state credential, said David P. Wright, coordinator of planning and research for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Among those required to be fingerprinted are teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, administrators, school psychologists, and social workers. School workers not required to be fingerprinted include custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, and security personnel.

Legislation has been proposed in California that would also require the fingerprinting of all new employees of private elementary and secondary schools.

Applicants for teacher certification in Nevada have been required since 1967 to submit fingerprints. The law was amended in 1979 to include "other educational personnel" who seek certification from the superintendent of public instruction.

In New York, anyone seeking employment with the New York City Board of Education, "from a custodial helper to an administrative position," is required to submit fingerprints, said Gary Barton, director of personnel. Currently those prints are sent to the New York Department of Criminal Justice Services for a criminal background check.

Up to two years ago, the prints were also sent to the fbi, but that practice stopped when the agency started charging $12 to process each individual's fingerprints, Mr. Barton said.

He added, however, that money is being requested from the state chancellor's office to resume the federal checks.

"Fingerprinting is an excellent, excellent source of information on prospective teachers," Mr. Barton said. "We have picked up a lot of undesirables that we have prevented from getting into the school system."

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