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New Jersey's most wanted

In the past 10 years, New Jersey public schools have hired 3,405 people with criminal convictions, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.

That means that for every 100 people hired between 1987 and 1997 by New Jersey schools, at least one person has been found to have a criminal record, the department found in response to a request from The Record, a New Jersey newspaper.

Of those with criminal records, 354 were teachers, the state said. The rest were bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Forty-nine had been convicted of murder, seven of kidnapping, 91 of child abuse, and 171 of sex offenses. The state did not mandate background checks for school employees until 1987.

Under New Jersey law, schools may employ new workers for up to six months while waiting for their criminal-background checks to be completed. The statute requires new employees to swear that they have never been convicted of a serious crime. But some lie.

"Six months or six minutes is still too long to have someone with a criminal record working in the schools," said Frank Belluscio, the director of public information for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

During its semiannual meeting in November, the NJSBA will consider whether to support a local district's proposal to amend the background-check law, he said.

"We need to expedite this process. It takes too long," Mr. Belluscio said. The njsba has encouraged school districts to work with local police to conduct preliminary background checks, which only take a few days, while waiting for state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's background checks to be completed. "The FBI checks usually take four months," Mr. Belluscio said. "This is where we would find the out-of-state criminals."

Most offenders have in-state convictions and are identified within two weeks, said Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the state education department. He said that if there were any way to make the background-check process more efficient, state officials would try to find it.

Rita Malley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, said the governor was concerned upon learning about the six-month window. "She has suggested that the legislature look into this when the next session meets," Ms. Malley said. Opening day for the next session has not yet been set.

--KAREN ABERCROMBIE

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