Right To Teach in Calif. Denied Without Prints

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Kenneth Payne has found himself in a predicament over the 10 years that he's been trying to become a teacher in California.

Mr. Payne has suffered all his life from atopic dermatitis, a rare and incurable skin condition that causes the inside of his hands to peel constantly. That means he can't give a legible set of fingerprints.

To be a full-time teacher in California, the state has long required that an applicant first submit his fingerprints so he can be checked for a criminal record. Because Mr. Payne is not able to give a set that can be read by computer, he has had to settle for being a substitute.

And he's not quite sure how he got clearance to do that, because substitutes have to submit fingerprints, too. "I suspect that they gave me a name-only clearance," without checking his prints, he said in an interview last week.

Then, last October, the state closed even the substitute-teaching door to the 55-year-old native Californian. All school employees are now required to have complete background checks. The change came about after a student was slain at Rio Linda High School in Sacramento County, allegedly by a substitute custodian who had a manslaughter conviction and was out on parole. Legislators pushed for the change to increase safety for students. ("Slaying Casts Spotlight on Job Screening," May 28, 1997.)

District officials say they cannot make exceptions to the procedure for Mr. Payne. "Legally, we are not able to hire him," said Carl Wong, the superintendent of the 8,000-student Petaluma district, where Mr. Payne was a substitute teacher for four years. "If his fingerprints could be verified ... , he would be qualified to teach here."

Slipping Through

Previously, a person could be employed at a California school while waiting for background clearance from the state justice department.

Now the law requires a complete background check, and it does not take into account people like Mr. Payne, who apparently slipped by under the previous rules.

Schools send the justice department a card with a full set of an applicant's prints. After a name search is completed, the agency conducts an automated search to see if the prints match a criminal's. If the fingerprints cannot be read, they are returned to the district so they can be taken again.

That happens about 5 percent of the time, according to Michael Van Winkle, a spokesman for the California Department of Justice.

In Mr. Payne's case, "we had no way of knowing that he had a skin condition," Mr. Van Winkle said. The district did not supply that information along with his print card, according to Mr. Van Winkle.

Superintendent Wong stressed that his role is to make sure that his district is following the law. "We are educators, not law enforcement," he said.

Mr. Payne has lived in Petaluma for 22 years, where he had worked as a carpenter before going to San Francisco State University to get his degree in geography. He holds a teaching credential from the state, which he has never been able to use.

'Shuffled Back and Forth'

He's heard many reasons why he can't teach in his state. "I've been shuffled back and forth so much," he said. "Ultimately, this requires a legislative fix."

Republican Assemblywoman Barbara Alby is sponsoring a bill to provide an alternative for people like Mr. Payne.

"We want to make sure [Mr. Payne] gets back into the classroom and at the same time ensure safety," said Todd Bloomstine, Ms. Alby's legislative aide. The legislation is expected to pass both chambers by October.

Meanwhile, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc. in Berkeley, Calif., has taken up Mr. Payne's cause.

His lawyers say Mr. Payne is a qualified individual with a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Stephen A. Rosenbaum, the disability-rights group's lead counsel, has sent a letter to the state attorney general's office, as well as to the Petaluma and Sonoma County districts.

He had set an April 27 deadline for a response; otherwise he planned to file suit. The bottom line, he said, is that the justice department needs to provide alternatives for fingerprint checks if a person is disabled as Mr. Payne is.

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