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N.J. Bill Requires Criminal Checks for Employees

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About 70,000 New Jersey school employees hired before 1987 would have to undergo criminal-record checks under a bill working its way through the state legislature.

The proposed law would expand the 1986 New Jersey Criminal Background Check Law, which required all new applicants to be checked for past criminal convictions, to cover veteran employees.

About half of the states mandate some form of investigation of school job applicants or workers. Many such laws have been enacted within the last few years.

New Jersey officials say they have cause to expand their policy.

Figures from the state education agency show that since 1987, 2,340 applicants have been disqualified for past criminal convictions.

While that figure represents only about 1 percent of all applicants, it also means that the 1986 law kept 63 convicted murderers out of New Jersey classrooms, as well as 158 sexual offenders, 81 child abusers, five kidnappers, and hundreds of others who had been convicted of aggravated assault, robbery, arson, and drug violations.

John Henderson, an associate director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said it also means there could be about 700 employees with criminal histories currently working in the state's schools.

"There's no reason to expect that the 1 percent wouldn't be true anywhere else," he said.

While the proposal to screen veteran workers has wide public and legislative support, one concern is the cost, an estimated $350 million, said Sen. Joseph A. Palaia, who is sponsoring it in the state Senate.

Officials at the school boards' association had said this was a cost local school districts were willing to bear. But lawmakers decided at a Senate education committee hearing last week that more precise cost estimates are needed, and the bill is being held until the committee meets again on Nov. 21.

Due-Process Rights

The broader issue posed by such background checks is one of due process for employees.

The New Jersey Education Association is studying the bill "in light of a new climate of public concern," said Lynn Maher, a spokewoman for the union, but the organization has historically opposed background checks.

"There are questions regarding the constitutionality of such a bill," said Marsha Wenk, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which opposes the measure.

A conviction is relevant only if it impairs a teacher's ability to do his job, she argued, and demanding private information without causemay violate individual rights.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 24 states require criminal-background checks on teachers. Some also examine histories of other school employees.

Usually, the state conducts an initial screening through its law-enforcement agency, and then checks records kept by the F.B.I. If the searches reveal any felonies, the results are forwarded to the school agency employing the individual. Some states require background checks for certification, others for hiring.

All states require teaching-certificate applicants to disclose prior criminal convictions. More than half also request disclosure of infractions involving "moral turpitude." But school officials say that requesting disclosure, and actually conducting a probe, are two different things altogether.

"It's amazing how many people say no [to criminal histories on their applications], and then you get the fingerprints back and they've clearly lied," said William L. Gagnon, the director of human resources for the East Hartford, Conn., public schools.

After highly publicized arrests of a school teacher and a janitor in the Connecticut district two years ago, school officials decided to look more closely at their policy for checking employees' backgrounds. They found that while Connecticut had been fingerprinting school employees since the 1980's, the state's law did not provide for disclosure of the findings.

A law that went into effect in July calls for all new school employees to undergo a record check.

A Legislative 'Hot Spot'

That law also gives school districts the authority to screen employees retroactively. Mr. Gagnon predicted that few districts will do so. In that case, he said, unions representing school employees might have a "field day."

Background checks may prove to be a legal minefield. But lawmakers across the country are hearing public demands for safer schools.

"This is a very hot spot as far as legislative interest," said Jim Hemphill, the special assistant to the state superintendent in Mississippi, where checks by school districts are not yet mandatory.

Under New Jersey's proposed law, all employees of a board of education would have to undergo a criminal-record check within one year of the effective date of the bill. When a disqualifying offense was found, the employee would have to demonstrate evidence of rehabilitation to keep his job.

Since 1987, according to the New Jersey school boards' group, only about 20 percent of applicants with disqualifying offenses have proved their rehabilitation to the commissioner of Education.

"Say someone as a teen falls into the wrong group and commits a purse snatching," said Frank Balluscio, a spokesman for the group. "People do turn their lives around." But he said it is "really necessary that children are not exposed" to sex offenders and other violent criminals.

Legislators and the public have been spurred to action by a recently publicized flaw in the original law that allowed up to an estimated 20 convicted murderers to land jobs in New Jersey schools.

According to Mr. Balluscio, the 1986 law listed conspiracy to commit murder as a disqualifying offense, but not murder. The oversight was corrected in 1989, but privacy laws prevented the state from alerting districts where the former felons had secured work.

At the committee hearing last week, education officials revealed other loopholes in the original law. Carl Carabelli, the director of criminal-history review at the state department of education, said that 492 school workers hired between 1986 and 1989 could now be disqualified.

In New Jersey, issues of public safety and privacy rights have also been highlighted by last July's sexual assault and slaying of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, whose family felt they had a right to know that they were living across the street from convicted sex offenders. Last week, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed "Megan's Law," which will subject such offenders to a lifetime of supervision.

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