School districts in Ohio are among the first to use a new electronic system that could drastically reduce the amount of time they have to wait for background checks on prospective employees.

Called WebCheck, the process takes a system that now requires up to a month and reduces the wait to 48 hours. That could prevent people with criminal backgrounds from ever setting foot in a setting with children, said Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. “Imagine the heartaches that can be avoided by keeping those criminals out of schools,” she said.

WebCheck is a program that uses the internet to electronically transfer fingerprints and other data from Ohio school districts to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI).

The program began at five pilot sites in June. Twelve school districts and other organizations—including nursing homes and child care centers—are using WebCheck, and more than 100 others are setting up accounts to be online by the end of the year.

To use the system, employers need a Windows-based computer and must purchase an electronic fingerprint scanner, a magnetic strip reader for processing applicants’ driver’s licenses, and the WebCheck software.

It then takes the employer about five minutes to process an applicant with WebCheck and 48 hours for the Ohio BCI to use the fingerprints to search for a criminal history.

Fingerprint data are encrypted at the client and BCI sites, and the program is password-protected. In the event of a hit, the bureau informs the requesting agency, then sends the record by certified mail. No criminal histories travel over the internet.

By contrast, using ink pads and paper to record fingerprints and mailing them to BCI can take weeks, especially if the fingerprints are incomplete and must be returned for a second try, said Ted Almay, superintendent of the agency.

The WebCheck equipment and software costs about $2,500, state officials said. The price for the background check remains $15.

Quicker turnaround

Beginning in 1993, Ohio passed a series of laws requiring background checks for people applying to work in a number of occupations, including jobs involving children and the elderly.

People convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, sexual battery, and robbery, are automatically disqualified from working with children in Ohio.

The number of background checks the state conducts grew from 51,948 in 1992 to almost 450,000 last year. State officials said the WebCheck system, which is capable of processing up to 5,000 transactions per day, will greatly reduce the BCI’s workload.

The state’s school districts stand to benefit as well. Reduced turnaround times give districts the ability to hire prospective employees more quickly—an ability that looms large as schools scramble to fill teaching posts created by swelling enrollments.

Ohio’s Dublin City Schools were one of the five sites that tested the system this summer. Superintendent Steve Anderson said the district processed 200 applicants much faster than in previous years.

“Everyone who walks up to the scanner to poke their right thumb down does so with a little bit of hesitation,” Anderson said. “In the past, they’d get fingerprinted and it’d be weeks and sometimes months before we’d get the information back.”

So far, no applicant has had a criminal background, Anderson said.

Searching for a person’s criminal background over the internet by name is possible in some states, but Ohio is the first to use an internet-based fingerprint system, said Mike Rathwell of Cogent Systems Inc., the South Pasadena, Calif., firm that designed WebCheck.

Fingerprints are more accurate than names when doing background checks, he added.

School districts outside of Ohio theoretically could use the WebCheck software to do background checks in their own states, Rathwell said, provided the states have their own back-end systems and fingerprint databases.