Latest Mich. Background Check Seen as More Accurate

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A statewide criminal-background check has found that nearly 500 felons and sex offenders were working in Michigan’s public schools as of Jan. 1.

Eleven of those school district employees—three of them teachers—had been convicted of felony or misdemeanor sex offenses and already have been or will be fired under a new state law that seeks to protect children from sex offenders and other violent criminals, said Martin Ackley, the spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education.

Most of the employees found to have felony records—66 teachers and 399 other staff members out of a statewide workforce of 200,000 in public schools—had convictions that are not grounds for automatic dismissal under the law. Local superintendents and school board members have discretion to decide whether those employees will keep their jobs, Mr. Ackley said.

Michigan Checks

Public school employees screened: 200,000
Teachers with felony records: 66
Other staff members with felony records: 399
Teachers with sex offenses: 3
All school employees with sex offenses: 11

“We notified school districts as soon as we had the list of employees with felonies and sex offenses so that they could deal with any possible threat to the safety of students,” Mr. Ackley said.

The Michigan State Police, using employee information provided by the state education department, conducted the background checks.

This latest round of background checks follows one conducted earlier this year that erroneously identified dozens of innocent school employees as convicted criminals. Those results sparked outrage following news accounts of teachers who were identified as multiple felons when they had never had even a parking ticket. ("Mich. Sex-Offender Law Has Educators in Uproar," Feb. 15, 2006.)

The results of that background check were scrapped after the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, argued in court that the results were too error-ridden to be reliable. The union also fought efforts by The Detroit News to obtain the information.

Improved Process

This time, state officials were more thorough and used stringent filters to identify criminals, said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, the spokeswoman for the teachers’ union.

“We feel much better about the process that was followed this time; they were much more careful,” Ms. Trimer-Hartley said. “We also feel good that it appears as though our profession is pretty darn clean, and that we will have less than one percent of our employees caught in this snare.”

The state education department sent the results to school districts in mid-May. State lawmakers were also informed of the number of felons and sex offenders identified in the check, Mr. Ackley said.

The names of the felons and the sex offenders and where they work will remain out of the public eye until at least June 7, when the information will become subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Ackley added.

While the statewide background check also identified employees with misdemeanor convictions, their names and where they work will not be disclosed, unless the convictions were for sex offenses or involved child victims, he said.

For the latest check, the Michigan State Police searched for employees’ names, gender, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers in a state criminal index, Ms. Trimer-Hartley said.

Records of employees who matched on all four criteria were reviewed personally by state police to ensure that information in the criminal database matched the data from the department. When discrepancies popped up, Ms. Trimer-Hartley said, state police contacted school employees directly.

‘Dark Cloud’

Under the Student Safety Initiative, a series of state laws that took effect this year, Michigan districts must obtain criminal-background checks and digital fingerprints for all school employees. State law had already required fingerprints for teachers and other professional staff members who work directly with students, raising questions about how the three teachers who were revealed to be sex offenders were not known to school officials.

Mr. Ackley, who said he did not know any details of the offenses of the three teachers, said it is possible that the convictions occurred after they were hired, or that their employment in Michigan schools predated the fingerprinting requirement.

The new law requires that the names of all school employees be run through Michigan’s criminal-history database every six months until July 2008, when all districts must have completed digital-fingerprint records for employees.

While Ms. Trimer-Hartley expressed relief that the second background check produced more reliable results, she said the first round may have caused long-term damage to teachers’ reputations.

“There is still a sense that educators have to prove their innocence,” she said. “That first go-round has cast quite a dark cloud over the profession.”

Vol. 25, Issue 39, Page 24

Published in Print: June 7, 2006, as Latest Mich. Background Check Seen as More Accurate
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