School Climate & Safety

Mich. Sex-Offender Law Has Educators in Uproar

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 10, 2006 5 min read

A new state law meant to purge Michigan schools of sex offenders has stirred up a fierce dispute over privacy rights, as innocent school employees have begun learning that they have been misidentified as criminals.

The Student Safety Initiative, a series of laws that took effect Jan. 1, requires Michigan school districts to obtain criminal-background checks and digital fingerprints for the roughly 200,000 public school employees in the state. State law had already required fingerprints for teachers and other professional staff members who work directly with students.

The new law mandates that the names of all school employees, whether they work with students or not, be run through a Michigan State Police criminal-history database every six months until July 2008, when all districts must have completed digital fingerprint records for employees.

BRIC ARCHIVE

At least nine other states have similar laws requiring all public school employees—from principals to custodians—to undergo criminal-history checks and have their fingerprints taken, according to the National Education Association. Most other states give authority to local school districts to conduct background checks and require fingerprints for school employees.

Results from the first round of background checks in Michigan have sparked angst and outrage among some employees and prompted the state’s largest teachers’ union to demand that the results be voided.

The controversy erupted Feb. 2, when school employees across Michigan, many of them teachers, were summoned by local administrators to be told that their names matched those of convicted criminals tracked by the state police’s criminal-history index.

Any employee found to be a convicted sex offender must be fired under the new law. District superintendents and school board members have discretion to fire or continue to employ individuals found to be convicted of other serious felonies.

The Michigan Education Association, which represents 157,000 school employees statewide, has received roughly 200 phone calls from members who say they’ve been mistakenly identified as criminals.

One, Tina VanSickle, is a 39-year-old middle school computer teacher and varsity-cheerleading coach in Morley, a town 30 miles north of Grand Rapids. Ms. VanSickle, who said she’s never even had a parking ticket, learned from her superintendent that her background check turned up seven misdemeanor convictions and a felony conviction for breaking and entering.

“At first, I just laughed,” Ms. VanSickle said. “I’ve never been in trouble for anything. And then I thought, ‘Why didn’t they do a better job of figuring out if these results are actually right?’ ”

Ms. VanSickle said she shelled out $75 to be fingerprinted and clear her name.

Union leaders are calling for the Michigan Department of Education to scrap the results and start over with the background checks. They point to mistakes across the state, including a teacher in Grosse Pointe who would have been 9 years old when she committed the armed robbery that showed up on her background check.

“It’s just absurd and potentially so damaging for these people,” said Rosalie Bryk, the president of the local teachers’ union in Grosse Pointe.

Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the education department, said last week that so far, school districts had not reported any firings based on the background-check results. He acknowledged several reports of mistakes, or “false positives,” but said the plan all along was to have local school officials sort out the inaccuracies.

“Of course, we expected that there could be situations where a criminal used a person’s name or Social Security number or had a similar name,” Mr. Ackley said. “The intent of sending the lists out to districts was to have them be a final and more direct filter for these matches.”

Newspapers Seek Release

Chad Canfield, the manager of the state police department’s criminal-history unit in Lansing, said two sets of criteria were used to determine if a school employee was a match with a convicted criminal in the database. State police used employee information supplied to them by the state education department, he said.

If an employee’s name, date of birth, and gender matched those of someone in the index (all three were required), state police included that employee on the list. If an employee’s Social Security number matched one in the index, he or she was also included on the list, Mr. Canfield said.

“That’s where most of the problems seem to have been,” said Mr. Canfield, referring to the matches of Social Security numbers. He stressed that without fingerprints, which are unique, there is no guarantee the matches will be accurate.

“This is an index filled with information provided by people at the time of their arrest,” he said. “Many of them find it in their best interest not to be honest when they are arrested.”

Still, Mr. Canfield said, much more analysis of the results could have been done to eliminate inaccuracies. He said the education department did not ask the state police to analyze any results, only to run the names.

“Next time we do this, we need to filter this information more,” Mr. Canfield said.

Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, said that ideally no lists would be compiled until every employee could be fingerprinted.

“That would be the most responsible course of action at this point,” Ms. Trimer-Hartley said.

At the same time, the MEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is fighting efforts by Michigan newspapers to force the state department of education to release the names of employees convicted of crimes.

Rep. Craig DeRoche, the Republican speaker of the Michigan House, has introduced a bill to force the release as well, arguing that parents need to know if convicted criminals are working in their children’s schools.

The union won a temporary restraining order to bar release of the list last month. A hearing in an Ingham County court was to be held Feb. 10 to determine if the ban would remain in place.

The Detroit News reported in late January that results of the background checks had revealed more than 4,600 criminal offenses among the state’s 200,000 school employees. Of those, the newspaper reported, 2,200 were felonies, including murder, sex offenses, and kidnapping.

Mr. Ackley, the education department spokesman, disputed those numbers. He declined to offer other figures, however, saying he was barred by the restraining order from doing so.

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety As States Fall Short on Tracking Discipline, Concerns for Equity Grow
Pandemic upheavals have left a majority of states with holes in their data about discipline in schools, potentially worsening disparities.
4 min read
Image of a student sitting outside of a doorway.
DigitalVision
School Climate & Safety Proms During COVID-19: 'Un-Proms', 'Non-Proms', and Masquerades
High school proms are back in this second spring of COVID-19, though they may not look much like the traditional, pre-pandemic versions.
7 min read
Affton Missouri UnProm
Affton High School students attend a drive-in theater "un-prom" in Missouri on April 18.
Photo Courtesy of Deann Myers
School Climate & Safety Opinion 5 Things to Expect When Schools Return to In-Person Learning
Many schools are just coming back to in-person learning. There are five issues all school communities should anticipate when that happens.
Matt Fleming
5 min read
shutterstock 1051475696
Shutterstock
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says 'High-Surveillance' Schools Lead to More Suspensions, Lower Achievement
Cameras, drug sweeps, and other surveillance increase exclusionary discipline, regardless of actual student misbehavior, new research finds.
5 min read
New research suggests such surveillance systems may increase discipline disparities.
Motortion/iStock/Getty