Published Online: April 30, 1997


Blurring the Lines, Part II

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As part of its routine screening, Hillsborough County scans applicants' crime records and orders a background check from the FBI.

The attendees say the tips they glean from these training sessions often help them confront crime problems more directly.

"We are on the front lines," says Fredi Adams, an occupational specialist at McLane Middle School. Though she has reported three incidents of abuse in her career, Adams says she "might not have recognized a pattern of abuse if someone hadn't brought it to our attention."

The Rev. Richard Cowley, a pastor at a local Wesleyan Methodist church, says the pointers will help his congregation convert to a more modern system. The church currently screens applicants the old-fashioned way--by word of mouth.

"We have all heard the horror stories of kids in Sunday school getting molested, and we want to protect them," he says.

Seminars such as these are but one of the tools that school and law-enforcement officials here use to keep updated in their drive to share information and ensure that the schools can be made as safe as possible in a violence-prone society.

For instance, Hillsborough County officials plan to incorporate some of these protocols into their already stringent applicant-screening process.

Local officials are aided by state law, of course. Last year, following a rash of highly publicized cases of criminals on school payrolls across the state--including an elementary teacher in Tampa accused of abusing mentally handicapped children--lawmakers required all noninstructional employees hired before 1990 to be fingerprinted.

New teachers were already covered by a law that Florida had passed more than a decade ago. But according to an investigation by the television newsmagazine show "Dateline," hundreds of people with criminal backgrounds were still making it into the system prior to last year. The new law, which mandates that all instructional personnel hired before 1984 get fingerprinted, was designed to close those gaps.

As part of its routine screening, Hillsborough County scans applicants' crime records and orders a background check from the FBI. Job applicants in this seaside school system must pay $45 to be scrutinized.

To David Friedberg, the district's school security chief who screens up to 7,000 employees a year, these measures are a necessary precaution.

"I had a lunchroom applicant the other day who had 12 charges, including prostitution, battery, and drug possession," says Friedberg, a former military policeman who turned away 30 potential employees last year because of less-than-perfect records.

Once hired, though, the monitoring doesn't end. Every month, district officials use school employees' Social Security numbers to comb through a police database to dredge up any recent criminal activity. For their part, the county police are required to notify district leaders if an employee is arrested, even if the offense is minor.

Armed with information that law enforcement provides, schools can direct resources to students who are victims of crime and may need special attention.

Friedberg recently flagged an employee who was caught fishing without a license, warranting a mark on his permanent record. "He was angry, but we tell educators that they're held to a higher standard," he says.

But breaking the law doesn't always automatically mean dismissal: The district evaluates each case individually, Friedberg says.

"We have employees who are convicted of passing bad checks and driving under the influence," says Friedberg. "We just don't have rapists and murderers."

Another link in the school-police chain is what may be the nation's only police unit devoted to analyzing crimes against children. James V. Caimano, a detective with the Hillsborough County sheriff's office, runs it.

His unit conducted studies between 1991 and 1993 that showed that in just one month, 1,100 incidents of child abuse and neglect went uninvestigated by police because they were masked by other crimes. An otherwise detailed officer's report of a domestic-violence dispute, for instance, omitted the fact that the couple's child was also injured.

In 1993, the same year the Juvenile Assessment Center was getting off the ground, Caimano and his colleagues also conducted "social autopsies" on a number of young victims in the county, tracing the times that the child made contact with the region's network of social and educational services.

Despite repeated opportunities for intervention, many young victims failed to get the help they needed, Caimano says. "We saw the names of kids over and over again," he says. "It was a vicious cycle."

In the past few years, Caimano has directed his unit to unearth aggressively crimes against children. He, in turn, relies on teachers and social workers to keep their eyes open so that no important fact goes uncovered.

Armed with the information that law enforcement provides, schools can direct resources to students who are victims of crime and may need special attention.

Three years ago, the sheriff's office asked James T. Stewart, now the principal of Ben H. Hill Junior High School in Tampa, to keep a close watch on a student who had just witnessed a murder and was a target herself. He put a school police officer on alert and barred unauthorized individuals from checking her out of school.

Police and school officials also collaborate to retrieve abducted children. Together, they construct family histories and genealogy charts and share phone numbers of relatives if a child is suspiciously absent from class.

"We visit schools and work through a scenario of how kids are abducted, evaluate the policies, and talk about how to enhance the systems' responses," says Jezycki.

She and other law-enforcement experts also point out to educators that the likeliest threat of abduction comes from noncustodial parents and other family members. More than 350,000 children are seized by relatives each year, while up to 4,600 children are abducted by strangers.

Only this semester, Hillsborough County school officials put their training to the test. When an 8-year-old disappeared from her elementary school one morning, police descended on the school to investigate. Information that the police gathered from interviews with the girl's teacher and classmates helped lead them to Virginia where the girl's mother, who does not have custody, had taken her.

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