Flaws found in screening of teachers; Up to 2,400 with criminal records may slip through yearly; Texas agency urges fingerprinting for all prospective hires

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

As many as 2,400 people become teachers in Texas every year despite having unnoticed criminal records, according to a state agency that is recommending all new teachers be fingerprinted before being allowed into a classroom.

“There’s no surefire way of protecting the children, but we want to do more,” said William Franz, executive director of the State Board of Educator Certification.

The recommendation comes from the Sunset Advisory Commission, a state body that evaluates state agencies every 12 years. Its new report on Mr. Franz’s certification board says that the current ad hoc method of screening would-be teachers has “led to situations in which the safety of children has been compromised.”

When people apply for teacher’s certificates in Texas, their names are checked against the Department of Public Safety database of known criminals. If a serious criminal offense is found in an applicant’s background, the state may deny a certificate.

But there are holes in the way the checks are done. No attempt is made to check criminal records in other states. Name-based background checks have high error rates and can miss when a criminal changes his or her name.

“Texas has a reputation as a state that will easily certify educators with criminal history records that have prevented employment in other states,” the report says.

The Sunset report recommends that Texas join the 33 states that already require some sort of fingerprinting of teachers. Fingerprints could then be checked more accurately against Texas records and checked against the FBI’s master database, which includes criminal records from all 50 states.

“We don’t know how many people have come in from other states and been able to avoid scrutiny,” Mr. Franz said.

The Sunset report recommends passing the cost of the national background check – estimated at about $42 – to the new teachers as part of their certification fees.

The Sunset Commission will meet to consider the report’s recommendations on April 23 and 24. If the commissioners approve, they are expected to be formally adopted in June, which means they will be drafted into a bill to be considered in the next legislative session.

Craig Tounget, executive director of the Texas PTA, said his group would support the move.

“I think whatever steps they have to take to make sure no one who has any history of child abuse is teaching in our schools is one of the most important things we can do,” Mr. Tounget said.

The certification board’s current checks are made only once, when a teacher is first certified. It’s up to individual school districts to determine what additional background checks they run when a teacher is hired. Most, including Dallas schools, run state or national background checks, although the Fort Worth Independent School District is one of the few that already use fingerprints.

“Some of them, when they find out they’re going to be fingerprinted, they eliminate themselves from consideration quickly,” said Cecelia Speer, the district’s executive director for student affairs. “They know they’ll be caught.”

During the 2000-01 school year, Fort Worth fingerprinted nearly 3,000 people whose jobs would put them in one-on-one contact with children. About 10 percent were found to have a criminal record. And 10 individuals were found to have committed sexual offenses in states other than Texas – precisely the sort of person a national fingerprint check is designed to catch.

“It’s preventative,” said Tom Parker, assistant director for human resources with the Region 10 Educational Service Center in Richardson, which runs non-fingerprint background checks for about 50 school districts and charter schools in the Dallas area.

“People just don’t apply for a job in public schools if they have criminal records if they’re knowledgeable, because they know they’ll get caught.”

To determine how many teachers may be slipping through the system, Sunset Commission staff members used a study done in 1999 in Florida. The study ran both name-only and fingerprint checks on more than 90,000 state employees and state license recipients. About 12 percent of the people who the first check said had a clear record were found through a fingerprint check to have a criminal

Using that figure, the report estimates that 2,400 of the roughly 20,000 teachers who are certified every year in Texas could have unnoticed criminal backgrounds.

While most states have adopted fingerprinting, it hasn’t always been popular with teachers. When Maine started fingerprinting all its teachers – not just new ones – in 1997, the backlash was strong. Teachers held protests at the state Capitol, and more than 70 teachers refused to be fingerprinted and left the state’s

“When you have an issue as explosive as child abuse, some people can forget that we have civil liberties to protect us,” said Bernie Huebner, who leads Maine Educators Against Fingerprinting.

Mr. Huebner said there is little evidence that abuse by teachers is a serious problem and that fingerprinting thousands of teachers in hopes of catching a handful is an invasion of privacy and a misuse of resources.

Largely because of teacher lobbying, the state’s Legislature voted to repeal the fingerprinting law last year, although Gov. Angus King vetoed the repeal.

In Texas, teacher groups appear more receptive to the idea. Mr. Franz said he has heard little or no negative reaction from teachers.

“We certainly understand the need to run background checks,” said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “They’re an excellent idea. I don’t know enough about it to know if fingerprinting is necessary, but if it is, the public interest overrides teachers’ interest in keeping information private.”

But Mr. Cole noted that a plan aimed at filtering out criminals through the certification process might still miss thousands of people. Nearly a quarter of the teachers hired by Texas schools last year were less than fully certified, including many who received emergency permits to fill classrooms that would have otherwise gone without a teacher.

“It sends an unfortunate and discouraging message to would-be teachers at a time when we’re trying to get them into the classroom,” he said.

Targeting newly certified teachers would also do nothing to track down current teachers with criminal records. A recent simple Social Security number check by the certification board found 67 certified teachers who were also registered sex offenders.