One day last year, instructor Carl Chase reached into his mailbox at the George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, and found a letter from his principal. That’s when he first learned the news: Thanks to a new law, employees at Maine public and private schools were to be fingerprinted by state police for a criminal records check. Teachers who did not get printed would not be recertified.
Chase, a 30-year veteran teacher, was immediately offended: “I get paid very little, and my initial reaction was that if this is all they care about, then I am out of here.” Despite seven years at Stevens, an independent school where he had created an innovative steel-drum curriculum, he decided not to return to the classroom when schools opened this fall.
Chase is not the only Maine teacher up in arms. The background check law, which lawmakers passed in 1997 and implemented this year to help identify pedophiles and others who pose a danger to children, is being fought by a small group of school employees. Their protest was sparked by a middle school teacher who made front-page news in Maine when she quit over the regulation in January. Today, this opposition campaign includes nearly 60 teachers who have banded together as Maine Educators Against Fingerprinting. Meeting in homes and organizing via e-mail, MEAF has orchestrated demonstrations, taken out full-page advertisements in local newspapers, and set up booths at local fairs. A handful of teachers like Chase have even quit rather than get fingerprinted for recertification.
Though MEAF members are an eclectic bunch politically, most display a streak of libertarianism. Chase refers to the state police as “the Gestapo,” while the group’s English teachers view Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a bible. The background check law, MEAF contends, invades the privacy of individuals who are rarely found to be the culprits in abuse cases. Children’s relatives, not teachers, are the most frequent perpetrators of pedophilia, the group says. Ultimately, Chase and the others argue, lawmakers could do more to prevent molestation by beefing up the state’s abuse investigation unit, which in 1999 reported that it failed to look into thousands of child abuse incidents because of funding problems.
MEAF won a brief victory last spring when the Maine legislature passed a second bill that limited fingerprinting to new teachers. But Governor Angus King Jr. quickly vetoed the new version, saying children’s safety was at stake. With the veto, the original law stood, and Maine joined 20 other states that require background checks of all teachers.
Judy Lucarelli, an official with the Maine Department of Education, respects the stand of MEAF but says the law is needed. Years ago, as a school principal, Lucarelli once came across evidence of a teacher sexually harassing on a child. “I absolutely feel that this is a step worth taking to protect children,” she says.
David Hitchings, principal of Stevens, worries that the state is spending millions of dollars on what may be a wild goose chase. But he backs fingerprinting as the only way to make sure teachers have clean records. “It is very difficult for an administrator to do a complete criminal background check in any other fashion,” Hitchings explains.
Steel-drum classes at Stevens will continue this year with a new teacher. Chase, meanwhile, is working with 20 Maine schools that have picked up his curriculum. Called Planet Pan—a steel drum is often called a “pan"—the program introduces students to the art of making and playing the instrument. Chase also plans to do concerts at high schools across New England with his ensemble, the Atlantic Clarion Steel Band.
The teacher will continue to push for a repeal of the background check law. “School is the safest place a child can be,” he says. For too long, Chase adds, teachers have been used as scapegoats by the powers that be. Now, at age 60, he’s getting out of the profession, but others need to take a stand, he says. “They’ve got to do it if they want the respect that they are after.”