Slaying Casts Spotlight on Job Screening

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The campus slaying of a high school senior in Rio Linda, Calif., this month was horrifying enough. But the arrest of a temporary school employee--and convicted felon--in the crime has compounded the tragedy.

Now, state officials are struggling to understand how the alleged assailant, Alex Del Thomas, hid a 1986 manslaughter conviction from the Grant Joint Union High School District in Sacramento County, which hired him as a substitute custodian just last month.

And the grisly details of the case are prompting other states to examine whether their background-check and employment policies are stringent enough to protect students from potentially dangerous school employees.

"We've become aware of how vulnerable we are to sexual predators," said state Assemblywoman Barbara Alby, a Sacramento Republican who last week called a special meeting of education leaders to find ways to improve the screening of California school employees. "Now this comes along and we see how vulnerable we can be to criminals."

Out on Parole

Michelle Montoya, 18, was found in the Rio Linda High School wood shop on May 16. Her throat was slashed and her skull had been crushed. Mr. Thomas called police to report the incident. He was arrested hours later, and remained in custody without bail late last week.

A series of stunning revelations followed his arrest for murder.

Investigators found that the 34-year-old janitor was on parole stemming from a failed robbery attempt in which he shot and killed his intended victim. Sentenced to 18 years, he was paroled after eight. It was also learned that, during his job interview, Mr. Thomas had used makeup to cover a "107" tattoo--a gang moniker--on his forehead.

Such discoveries have put school district employees on the defensive, even though they did not violate state hiring policies.

The hiring-clearance process for Mr. Thomas began April 4, according to district data. The parolee received a favorable review from a previous employer, started working on April 17, and was sent to Rio Linda High School two days before the slaying.

As a noncredentialed substitute employee, Mr. Thomas was not required by state law to have a fingerprint, criminal-background check. The district submitted a request for one anyway on May 9, paying $10 extra, or $42, to expedite the state justice department search. What's more, Mr. Thomas' parole officer knew where he was working, but had not contacted the school, said a California corrections department official.

Changes Proposed

When the one-page background check on Mr. Thomas reached the district May 19, three days after Ms. Montoya's death, it was inconclusive.

"We weren't saying that there was not a criminal record," explained Rob Stutzman, the spokesman for the state department of justice. Instead, the report indicated that subsequent fingerprint identification was under way. If an initial review flags an arrest record, the department must confirm identification and convictions before notifying schools, which can take 10 additional days, he added.

"If we want faster service, then lawmakers must decide if they want to pay," he added.

California officials are already considering changes.

While schools can hire nonteachers before background checks are finished, Grant Union and other California districts have put a hold on all hires until the checks clear. The policy may become state law this year.

Current California statutes let districts hire people convicted of violent felonies. That, too, may be reversed, Ms. Alby said.

School officials want to streamline and beef up technology to speed background checks. The process now takes an average of seven days to three weeks. And school officials say the checks can take three months.

National Momentum

In an interview just days before Ms. Montoya's death, Doug Bates, the school law coordinator for the Utah education department and a national expert on background checks, predicted more legislative action on the issue. Today, half the states require in-state fingerprint background checks for new teachers. A growing number require such checks for non-instructional employees as well.

In a sadly prophetic statement, Mr. Bates, added: "When someone wants these laws, I say, 'Get the media involved and get a horror story.' Unfortunately, horror stories are not rare."

The Seattle-based National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education & Certification reports that just 15 states seek state and national background checks for first-time teacher certification applicants.

National searches must go through the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI, though faulted for taking up to six months to complete such checks, has 35 million criminal records in its 1,000-acre Clarksburg, W.Va., complex. Nine percent of all searches find some kind of criminal history, officials there said.

The NASDTE also keeps a national database of teaching-certificate revocations. Between 1987 and 1994, the group recorded 6,318 certificate actions involving licensed teachers and applicants, including 3,067 prompted by criminal convictions.

Nationwide, criminal-background checks on veteran teachers and other school employees are less common. Arkansas, Florida, Utah, and Washington are among the states with such checks.

Washington state began checking new teachers for criminal records in 1992. But a 1996 statute requires districts to request state and federal background checks on all employees by June 30. Some districts already are complying. To date, the checks have turned up 760 convictions, including 13 for child molestation, 134 on drug-related charges, and 172 for shoplifting.

Reluctance Common

Horror stories do not always override concerns about privacy and cost.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a five-part series last fall documenting several cases of teachers with felony convictions who were licensed to teach.

In one case cited by the newspaper, a man was licensed in Tennessee and Arkansas after spending 15 months in an Alabama prison for sexually abusing a 19-year-old man in a home for the mentally retarded. Then, in 1994, after teaching special education for four years, the teacher pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy during an overnight school trip.

Despite such stories, state Rep. Marian D. Owens-Ingram, a Democrat, had to fight this year to get the Arkansas legislature to mandate state and national background checks for all teachers as they renew their licenses.

She successfully sponsored legislation in 1995 to require checks for first-time and out-of-state teachers. A major opponent of the 1997 bill was the Arkansas Education Association, which alleged a teacher witch-hunt and opposed making teachers pay $39 for the checks. In the end, the state agreed to pay for the checks for veteran teachers only.

This year, Alabama and Montana rejected mandatory criminal-background checks for teachers--even for credential applicants.

In Montana, legislators said the legislation was an invasion of privacy, overly inclusive, and expensive.

The Alabama Education Association opposed a bill seeking blanket checks on all school employees, but backed the screens for new applicants. "We just didn't believe that a person in this country needed to prove their innocence," said Paul Hubbert, the executive secretary of the AEA.

The National Education Association, endorsing a similar position to that of its Alabama affiliate, has raised concerns about teachers' footing the bill for check costs.

Background checks also pose a host of questions about data accuracy and what should be done once arrest and conviction records are discovered.

School employees have been suspended or denied certificates when a name-based check gave them somebody else's criminal record. And, in one high-profile Illinois case, former Bloom Township High School teacher Michael Maynard was fired in 1995 for a misdemeanor marijuana-possession conviction 21 years earlier.

"Are miscarriages of justice allowed by zero tolerance? Yes," said August Steinhilber, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "You need some common sense, and zero tolerance doesn't allow common sense."

Nonetheless, the NSBA backs federal legislation that would require the FBI to make criminal-background information available to school districts.

Currently, such data are provided to state law-enforcement agencies only when state laws call for it.

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