Our Children Deserve Safer Schools

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Recent actions of prosecutors and government officials throughout the country have jeopardized the safety of schoolchildren.In one of a number of Ohio cases, for example, a teacher was charged with two counts of sexual battery stemming from an alleged 15-month affair with a student. In pretrial bargaining, prosecutors dismissed criminal charges in exchange for the teacher's withdrawing her application to renew her state teaching license. While the prosecutor said the teacher was "not fit to be in the classroom," the remedy merely ignored the behavior. This teacher would appear to be free to apply for a teaching position anywhere else.

Soft-handed treatment of school employees charged with unconscionable behavior has created a national crisis. Local attempts to negotiate settlements with sexual predators or other misguided adults in single school jurisdictions have placed the rest of our nation's children in jeopardy. Such actions shed a knotty problem for a locality, but create ominous consequences for the rest of the country.

Too many communities have learned the hard way the tragic consequences of making ill-informed school district hiring decisions. The news media are doing their part. Newspapers throughout the country have run expos‚s on this problem. ("A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers," November/December 1998). Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, the chief anchormen for NBC and CBS news, respectively, have recently highlighted the problem in their broadcasts. It's time for state and local school officials to catch up with the private sector in employment practices. We need to feel secure in the knowledge that every effort has been made to select people with the highest qualifications and most impeccable character possible to nurture our kids at school. Children deserve safe schools.

Ask any parent or school official what they expect from someone who works with children in a school, and you're likely to get similar responses: School employees should be qualified for their jobs, contribute to the effective functioning of the school system, and provide children with safe, successful educational experiences. Parents and school leaders would also agree, no doubt, that employees should behave morally and ethically, and should maintain reputations that are beyond reproach within the community.

Imagine how parents in the Cleveland public schools must have felt when 22 school employees were removed from their jobs last year pending investigations of unreported criminal activities and falsified applications. The dirty laundry in the school system's closet was revealed by the local news media.Consider what the families of children in another school in the region went through when they learned that their principal had been removed for alleged illegal activities involving a minor--one of his own students. Even worse, newspaper reports revealed that this same person had been accused of similar behavior in a previous position 13 years ago.

One of the biggest problems in the school-employment arena appears to be applicants with false identities. The right applicant for a job working with children should be a willing participant in the employment and background-verification process. If minor questions arise about past employment or activities, a good candidate should be willing to talk openly and honestly in interviews with hiring personnel. Mitigating circumstances could be considered. Most importantly, any candidate with a serious, potentially damaging problem in working with children--such as false credentials or criminal convictions--could be screened out. In any case, a thorough background check with cross-referenced, multiple screens would give school personnel much greater knowledge and control in hiring decisions.

How can the kinds of incidents reported in Ohio and elsewhere happen? Surely the best practices are in place to identify and select well-qualified and reputable candidates for employment in schools. Or are they? Unfortunately, unscrupulous people do migrate to schools. They hide information, list false credentials or identities on r‚sum‚s, and even use bogus Social Security numbers. Some lie outright, others evade, some may travel from district to district or state to state, leaving it difficult to detect their trails of misconduct. Surely, district officials have the best tools to identify and select well-qualified and reputable candidates for employment. Or do they?

Regrettably, few districts or state education agencies have adequate procedures to thoroughly check backgrounds of such individuals. Unlike the private sector, schools tend to have limited safeguards to protect their most precious resource--our children.

Those doing the hiring may not always be to blame. In my years as a school administrator and consultant, I have found school human-resource specialists to be generally among the most competent of professionals. The procedures that exist for checking applicants' backgrounds, however, are difficult to assess and dreadfully inadequate. School hiring officials just haven't had the best tools to use to uncover serious potential problems.

Clearly, administrators need a quick, simple way to check the credentials, backgrounds, and employment histories of every potential employee. In a recent survey by SchoolMatch, we were stunned to learn that most schools continue to use outdated practices and have not taken advantage of modern employment-industry data services.

FBI background checks, for example, are spotty at best and only available for certain states. That system relies on the voluntary reporting of courts in participating states. Many efforts to check backgrounds don't review civil litigation, false identities, and financial, or even criminal, records. Because thorough background checks are not available, some candidates are hired on the basis of an application only, with perhaps a cursory call to a previous employer.

Most private-sector firms, on the other hand, use "employment screening services" to give their human-resource administrators valuable information to use in making informed decisions about filling important positions with the best people. Virtually no schools use the processes in place in most Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, or consulting firms. Private firms generally use services governed by the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. This law is designed to promote accuracy, fairness, and privacy of information in the files of every "consumer reporting agency."

The benefits of this knowledge would extend far beyond the specific position being filled. Existing school employees would be assured they are working in secure environments in which their skills are valued, and in which all employees are expected to uphold the school's mission and the community's high standards. The school or school system would be saved from wasting scarce time and resources on costly, emotionally draining investigations and public relations salvage operations. Families would be able to place faith in a school system that does all it can to ensure the safest, most enriching educational environment.

Our children deserve nothing less.

William L. Bainbridge is the president of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based consulting firm advocating public interests through educational research and evaluation.

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 33

Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Our Children Deserve Safer Schools
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