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Chicago School-Bus Drivers' Arrest Exposes Screening-Law 'Loophole'

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The arrest last week of 16 Chicago school-bus drivers who allegedly sold drugs along their routes has exposed what law-enforcement officials say is a loophole in many state laws requiring potential school employees to be screened for prior criminal convictions.

According to Illinois officials involved in Operation skid--the undercover investigation known as School Kids in Danger, which produced the arrests last week--state legislators' efforts to strengthen child-protection laws fell short in this instance because inadequate attention was given to private firms under contract to schools.

Thirty-two private companies provide the Chicago Public Schools with all transportation services. Yet, under the Illinois law requiring screening for all applicants for jobs working with children, sources said, the responsibility for conducting private firms' screenings is unclear.

Illinois law-enforcement officials charged, in addition, that convicted felons are slipping into the school system through contractors because existing laws are not being properly followed by school officials.

Several of the Chicago school-bus drivers arrested had extensive criminal histories, they noted, including convictions for such serious offenses as aggravated assault, kidnapping, and narcotics violations.

"This is definitely a loophole in the system," said Maj. Charles J. Doerr, a spokesman for the state police, "and there are some real problems in terms of whether or not these people are getting checked out."

National child-protection advocates warned that laws elsewhere may have the same loophole.

"Whether or not state laws cover contracted employees has been a concern I've always had," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's National Legal Research Center.

Mr. Davidson is currently working with aides to two U.S. Senators--Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Harry Reid of Nevada--on legislation introduced in the Congress last month that would include employees under contract with the federal government in a new child-protection law. The measure would require criminal-background checks for those working with children.

But what remains unclear under the Senate proposal and in many state laws, according to Mr. Davidson, is whose responsibility it is to check the backgrounds of contracted employees.

Screening in 13 States

Some 13 states have adopted laws that include criminal-background checks for workers who come in contact with children, according to Tommy Neal, a researcher for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the laws typically cover day-care workers and teachers.

They vary, however, in their strength and stipulations. In some states, background checks are required; in others, they are simply allowed. And while some of the laws specify screening at the certification stage, others put it at the time of application for a job.

Some also mandate only a statewide check of records, while others require that employees submit fingerprints that can be crosschecked with Federal Bureau of Investigation records to guard against criminal convictions anywhere in the country.

In Louisiana, for example, the law specifically notes what occupations require fingerprinting and screening through the fbi at the job-application stage: teachers, teacher-substitutes, bus drivers, janitors, and any other school employees who may come in contact with children.

Mr. Neal of the ncsl noted, however, that a 1986 Pennsylvania law appears to be the only one to specifically include contracted employees among those who must be screened before working with children.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Board of Education confirmed, however, that those background checks are only statewide, and that school districts rely on the private firms contracting to do the screening.

To Charles C. Mackey, superintendent of teacher education for the New York State Department of Education, the variance in state laws and the fact that contracted employees are rarely covered specifically are ''absolutely a problem."

Mr. Mackey is director of the Teacher Identification Clearinghouse, a national database listing names of teachers whose licenses have been revoked, suspended, or denied for reasons such as a criminal conviction.

The database offers participating states the names and Social Security numbers of such teachers, going back to 1972. Currently, 37 states are participating, Mr. Mackey said, and with the help of a federal grant he hopes to expand that number to include all 50 states.

The 50-state database, he argued, would help make up for what state laws lack in screening specificity. It would still, however, not cover contracted employees.

Who Should Screen?

The Chicago arrests have produced a heated debate over whose responsibility it was to check the records of school-bus-company employees.

Twenty-nine people were arrested by undercover officers of the state police, who allegedly made 55 drug buys from bus drivers, mechanics, bus attendants, and known suppliers of narcotics to the drivers. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

Sixteen of those arrested were driving school buses at the time of the buys, according to police. And investigators suspect that students may have been among their customers.

Of the 16 bus drivers charged, seven had prior felony convictions, ranging from aggravated battery and assault to narcotics offenses. One driver had been arrested 15 times, three times on battery charges.

Several of the drivers did not even have a valid drivers' license.

A 1985 state law requires school officials to screen all district employees--from teachers to bus drivers--for criminal history, according to Major Doerr of the state police.

Districts are prohibited from hiring anyone with certain criminal convictions, such as drug and sexual offenses and assault.

But the law currently does not clearly spell out, those interviewed maintained, procedures to be followed with employees hired through a contract with an outside firm.

Contractors Not Screened

In Chicago, where 43,000 schoolchildren are bused each day, all of the district's 13,000 drivers are hired through private contractors, as are many schools' food-service workers and some maintenance personnel.

Robert Johnson, director of the district's transportation system, said last week that officials had believed it was the responsibility of the state's regional superintendents to check backel10lgrounds of employees under contract.

Gary D. McAlvey, chief of the bureau of identification for the state police, said none of Illinois's 57 regional superintendents had ever sought a criminal-background check on a contracted employee.

This, he noted, is despite a 1976 addition to the state vehicle code that requires regional superintendents to screen all applicants for bus-driving positions for criminal offenses before issuing them permits to work for a school system.

Cook County Regional Superintendent Richard J. Martwick, who issues such school-transportation permits for Chicago, last week declined to comment on Mr. McAlvey's charge that background checks had never been requested.

Mr. Martwick contended instead that it has always been the responsibility of local superintendents--those who actually do the contracting with the private transportation companies--to conduct background checks.

"The only time I would expect to have a role in this whole issue is if someone asks for my help," he said.

In 1983, Mr. Martwick noted, he had learned of reports that some school-bus drivers may have "had a problem with drugs and alcohol" and had asked local superintendents to investigate the allegations.

"They obviously didn't do that well enough," the superintendent said.

His office will be conducting an investigation into local superintendents' actions to determine whether there was any negligence on their part, or on the part of the transportation companies, Mr. Martwick added.

"If the companies had people driving without permits, how could they not be negligent?" he said.

Police officials noted in interviews that the private bus companies would not have been allowed access to criminal records to screen employees. Under state-records laws, only certain public officials, such as high-level school officials, may request information on a potential employees' criminal history, they pointed out.

"The law does not specifically say regional superintendents must do the background checks," Mr. McAlvey said. "But they are the ones who issue permits, not local superintendents, and they would have had access to police records."

Many Drivers Fired

Mr. Johnson of the Chicago school system said he met last week with representatives of the companies supplying drivers for the district and learned that most of the 29 em4ployees arrested had been fired "for various reasons" during the course of the police investigation.

Only one driver arrested was still working for the school system at the time of the arrests.

According to Major Doerr, the six bus companies involved came to the police to request the investigation in an apparent attempt, he said, to "stop this problem once and for all."

Mr. Johnson said district officials were not informed of the investigation, and when news of the arrests hit the local media, parents were "going wild, bombarding our office with calls, demanding to know who were these people selling drugs to their children."

District officials had very little information and spent days trying to get details from police, he said.

Major Doerr said local officials were not informed because that could have jeopardized police officers' undercover work. The investigation is continuing, he said, and more arrests are expected.

On Jan. 1, a revised child-protection law goes into effect that clearly stipulates that local district officials must conduct criminal-background checks on contracted employees.

But Cook County State's Attorney Cecil A. Partee said the mandate only calls for a statewide check of names and records. Anyone with a criminal conviction out of state, or who uses a false name, could slip by unnoticed, he maintained.

New Legislation Proposed

What is needed, according to Mr. Partee and Jeremy Margolis, the director of the Illinois state police, is new legislation requiring fingerprinting for all job applicants at schools and day-care centers, including contracted employees.

The law-enforcement officials also called for mandated drug and alcohol testing for all school-bus drivers--both prior to operation of a school bus, and twice during the school year. Currently, drivers are tested only when applying for a permit.

In addition, they said, police should be required to notify the regional superintendent immediately of any criminal convictions that may occur while a driver holds a permit.

State Representative Lee Preston, whose district includes Chicago, has pledged to introduce such proposals during the legislative session beginning in January.

Both Mr. Martwick and Mr. Johnson said school officials would support that effort.

"If there's anything we can do to ensure the full safety of our children, we will do it," Mr. Johnson said.

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