A Montana state senator said Jan. 17 that privacy rights don’t outweigh the need to fingerprint prospective Montana teachers to protect Montana children from abusers.

“This bill has one issue: It’s called the safety of children,” said Sen. Dale Mahlum, R-Missoula, sponsor of Senate Bill 233.

The bill, presented by Mahlum to the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee, would authorize the state superintendent of public instruction to require fingerprinting and background checks of applicants for K-12 school jobs, including teachers and administrators. The measure also would allow a job applicant’s criminal history to be made available to the superintendent, school districts, or businesses that provide services to children.

The bill, backed by education groups throughout the state, wouldn’t apply to teachers already on school staffs.

Though fingerprinting may only catch a few abusers, Mahlum said, it’s worth it. “Just because we live in the lovely state of Montana, it doesn’t mean we escape these evil monsters,” he said.

Education officials said fingerprinting already exists in more than 20 Montana school districts, and SB233 would simply put in place a fairer process that applies across the board.

“Although many don’t like the idea of fingerprinting, that’s a battle that has been lost on the federal level,” said Terry Minow of MEA-MFT, a union representing teachers. “Every other state west of the Mississippi is fingerprinting school employees.”

A similar bill that was brought forward in the 1999 session died in the Senate.

Under SB233, which would take effect July 1, a job applicant could begin working while the results of the background check are pending. The superintendent of public instruction would make the results available to any school district that makes a written request for the information.

The cost for fingerprinting and conducting background check would be $35, to be borne by the job applicant.

The Senate Education Committee didn’t immediately take action on SB233.