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Schools use checks to screen potential employees

April 21, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

Federal and state criminal background checks are performed on all applicants seeking jobs with public schools in the Tri-State area, but the ways in which the checks are performed, and at whose expense, vary.

The federal background check became a requirement for Pennsylvania schools on April 1.

Now, anyone who applies to Pennsylvania schools for a job that involves student contact, including jobs through independent contractors, must provide copies of his or her federal criminal history records when submitting an application.

Since 1986, Pennsylvania school employees have undergone state criminal background checks and been required to obtain child abuse history clearances, said Nicole Rob, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

"In the past, it was based on if you were an in-state resident versus if you were an out-of-state resident. If you were an in-state resident and had been in the state for two years previously, we didn't check nationally," Rob said. "We wanted to extend it federally because there were cases coming up where (an applicant) had previous incidences that hadn't been discovered."

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The new Pennsylvania requirement came at about the same time the FBI and Homeland Security issued a bulletin to the nation's law enforcement agencies warning that people with "ties to extremist groups" were applying to become school bus drivers.

School officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia interviewed said they believe the federal and state background checks, along with supervision of newly hired personnel, provides protection against someone who might try to fake his or her way into a job with their schools, but all were hesitant to say the system is "fail-safe."

"If the state police can't find information on anyone and neither can the FBI, then I don't think we can find anything otherwise," said Bill Hodge, human resources director for the Chambersburg Area School District. "Nothing's fail-safe, but it's a step in the right direction to safeguard against the people who try to circumvent the system."

Paying the price

With the added federal background check, an applicant to Pennsylvania schools could spend $60 just to apply for one position, which Hodge and other Pennsylvania schools personnel said perhaps is the only drawback to the new mandate.

"I believe that local school districts will have to evaluate whether there are certain levels of employment that would make us offer some (financial) assistance," Hodge said.

Ralph Scott, superintendent of the Southern Fulton School District, said that the clearances could be used to apply for other jobs in other Pennsylvania schools, a more cost-efficient use of the clearances for an applicant.

Scott said he foresees giving retired teachers who return to the schools for some type of employment a break on the costs.

Julia Cigola, superintendent of the Central Fulton School District, said that the School Board has made some adjustments in light of the new rule. For example, a support staff worker who already had the state and child abuse checks performed and was cleared could work for up to 90 days until the federal background check clearance is obtained.

"They wouldn't be able to be alone," Cigola said. "They would have to be under the direct supervision of someone who has already been employed by the district."

In Maryland and West Virginia, federal and state background checks have been performed on applicants at least since the mid-1980s, officials in those states said.

Costs to perform those states' background checks are paid by the applicant, too, but the costs vary.

Edward Lynch, executive director of human resources for Washington County Public Schools, said the cost to perform the background checks can range from $10 to $52, depending on the position.

Lynch said he believes the cost helps weed out applicants who might not be serious about the positions available.

Someone who indicates on an application that he or she hasn't been convicted of a felony could get hired based on that information, but if the background check comes back with information indicating otherwise, that new hire could be fired, Lynch said.

"Most of the time, what they tell us is verified," he said, adding that there only have been a couple of instances in which someone has falsified information.

Getting printed

In Washington County, an applicant must be fingerprinted at the Washington County Board of Education's central office.

"The only way we know it's their fingerprint is if we take their fingerprint," Lynch said.

The prints are sent to Maryland State Police, who run them through state and federal criminal databases, a process that can take between four and eight weeks.

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