School Climate & Safety

Criminal Records Focus of Fla. Law

By Michele McNeil — July 15, 2008 1 min read
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A new law in Florida is intended to reveal any criminal skeletons in the closets of the state’s teachers—but big questions remain about how the Ethics in Education Act will be implemented.

The law, approved earlier this year and effective July 1, requires school districts to do background checks on current employees and fire them if certain convictions turn up. The list doesn’t include minor traffic or even misdemeanor drug violations. But it does apply to convictions on a lengthy list of felonies, and some misdemeanors affecting children, such as battery of a minor.

The law applies to public school districts, charter schools, and to private schools that get state scholarship or voucher funds. It also requires districts to report abuse complaints against teachers to the state department of education within 30 days, and suspend with pay anyone accused of misconduct that affects the welfare of a child.

But districts are awaiting guidance on the law, including when to do the background checks and how to handle convictions if they turn up. Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said members of the staff are working on those guidelines, but she didn’t say when they would be ready.

While most of the focus has been on background checks, a national school safety expert says a more important element of the law may be its prohibition against confidentiality agreements between school districts and terminated staff members.

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, said Florida’s ban on such agreements may go a long way to stop districts from the widely criticized practice of firing employees but failing to publicize the reasons for fear the districts’ reputations might suffer. Other school districts then unknowingly hire problem employees, continuing the cycle.

“This is one of the biggest issues now,” Mr. Trump said. “The vast majority of teachers are caring, dedicated professionals. But when you have a commonly known phrase called ‘pass the trash,’ that in and of itself tells you there’s a serious problem.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week

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