School districts from coast to coast are finding better ways to track and screen the teachers they hire by using information gleaned from the internet and national criminal databases.

Many school districts have complained for years that they inadvertently accept undesirable teachers—some with criminal histories or mental disorders—because there is not enough evidence available to weed them out.

Now, educators in some states are finding it easier to track the people they hire by using high-tech resources. Privacy advocates, on the other hand, worry that such methods are ripe for abuse.

In Indiana, the professional standards board requires prospective teachers to submit to a statewide criminal history check before they can obtain a license. Schools can perform the same check before hiring.

As of July, a new state law also allows Indiana school districts to put prospective teachers through a national background check by sending fingerprints to the FBI.

So far, only two Indiana schools have paid the $34 fee per individual to disclose state or federal convictions.

“It’s going to help out,” said Sen. Johnny Nugent, R-Lawrenceburg, who sponsored the bill. “This is a tool that they can use if they want to.”

But the screening isn’t mandatory. Some experts wonder whether the state could do more to keep troubled teachers out of the classroom.

Kevin McDowell, chief legal counsel for the Indiana Department of Education, said he thinks Indiana is on par with most other states when it comes to checking for past convictions before certification, but he wishes schools kept better tabs on crimes during a teacher’s tenure.

McDowell’s office relies mostly on newspaper reports to find out about teachers who encounter trouble with the law. That’s how officials learned about Richard Rice, a former Carmel High School math teacher who took his life after being charged with five felony counts of child seduction.

In Indiana, the professional standards board revoked three teacher licenses in 2000, two for sexual misconduct with minors. Three other teachers surrendered their licenses, an act commonly seen as a way to avoid a formal hearing.

The standards board hears cases referred by the Indiana Department of Education. Officials expect about 15 license revocations this year.

Mandated background checks for teachers is nothing new for schools in California, where schools require educators seeking new licenses to hand over two sets of fingerprints for statewide and national background checks.

If a California teacher is dismissed, resigns, or is suspended for more than 10 days because of an alleged problem, school officials are required to report the incident to a state commission on teaching credentials. If that doesn’t happen, the commission has the authority to investigate the teacher and the superintendent who failed to file the report.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has 28 employees and an annual budget of $5 million. The organization reports it investigated approximately 350 teachers in 2000.

Ohio state officials also have taken measures to ensure that schools do not hire potentially dangerous teachers, and like Indiana, they have turned to the web for help.

In 1999, eSchool News reported that school districts in Ohio were among the first to use an electronic system designed to reduce the amount of time they have to wait for background checks on prospective employees drastically.

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

The program began at five pilot sites in June 1999. Since that time, 469 school districts and other organizations—including nursing homes and child-care centers—have set up accounts.

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 the Ohio BCI 48 hours to use the fingerprints to search for a criminal history and report results.

Fingerprint data are encrypted both at the client site and BCI, 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 agency representatives.

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

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

Educators are warned that they must beware of the pitfalls inherent to online background checks.

Dan Clark, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said anything that leads to hiring better, safer teachers is a good idea, but he does not want to see the system get out of hand.

“There have to be safeguards against false accusations,” he said.

Officials know no system will be completely fail-safe. But they argue the need to keep students safe justifies the process.

Indiana Department of Education counsel McDowell said some teachers convicted of sex crimes do not act any differently than their law-abiding colleagues.

“The worst predators we uncover in our investigations have all the same qualities as your very best teachers,” he said. “That’s what makes it so hard for people to believe.”

Links:

Indiana Department of Education
http://ideanet.doe.state.in.us

Cogent Systems Inc.
http://www.cogentsystems.com

Carmel Clay Schools
http://www.ccs.k12.in.us