Alabama senator pushes background checks for school employees

Alabama state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, is pushing lawmakers to pass a bill expanding criminal background checks to all school workers, the Birmingham News reports.

The bill, which Figures introduced Aug. 28, would cover all teachers and most administrators, as well as most support workers at public and private schools—about 75,000 employees in all.

The impetus for the bill was the June arrest of Samuel J. Leavis, an assistant principal at Mobile’s Phillips Preparatory School, on charges of failing to register as a sex offender when he joined the Mobile County school system in 1990. Figures’ son reportedly came into contact with Leavis at the school.

Although Leavis had child-molestation convictions in Florida and Massachusetts, he got a job in Mobile County under a different name; the state did not begin background checks of new employees until 1996.

Gov. Don Siegelman said he supports the measure, but it also has opponents, chief among them private schools and the Alabama Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers. The AEA is supporting a rival bill sponsored by state Sen. George Callahan, R-Theodore.

Both bills would require all public and private school employees to undergo background checks, but Callahan’s bill would report only convictions, not arrests. It also would require the state to conduct the checks beginning with the last employees hired.

Currently, state law requires background checks only for new employees.

California officials call for tougher fire safety standards in schools

Current education codes in California only require schools to have manual pull alarms that don’t automatically alert the fire department. That needs to change, state Sen. Jack O’Connell said Aug. 27, a week after vandals set first to two classrooms at Green Oaks Academy in East Palo Alto.

O’Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, joined Menlo Park fire officials to promote a bill to raise the fire safety standards in the codes that guide school construction.

The legislation would require every new school to have an automatic alarm and sprinkler system. It would also require schools to include automatic alarms, but not sprinklers, in renovation projects of more than $200,000.

Fire officials say increased prevention measures can help prevent fires like the one at Green Oaks Academy, where the fire alarm wasn’t set up to alert firefighters. Neighborhood kids noticed the smoke and rode their bikes to a nearby police station.

“The damage that occurred here would have been significantly reduced had this classroom been fitted with automatic fire sprinklers,” said Menlo Park Fire Chief Miles Julihn.

Similar legislation has failed in the past as state lawmakers have balked at the cost of requiring schools to be fitted with sprinklers. But O’Connell said sprinklers only add about 1 percent to the total cost of a new school.

Minnesota takes aim at school bullying

Schoolyard bullies are the targets of a new campaign by the Minnesota education department, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

Education Commissioner Christine Jax said Aug. 27 she was prompted to start the anti-bullying effort by national studies on the problem and an informal Minnesota State Fair survey showing many residents are concerned about it.

“We tend to underestimate the impact day-to-day meanness has on kids,” Jax said. “We want to raise the consciousness people have about bullying.”

To do that, the state Department of Children, Families, and Learning is preparing a report for school districts on bullying and ways to combat it. The agency also plans a public-education campaign through brochures and community meetings.

The state campaign comes at a time when bullying is being addressed in schools nationwide.

Many states, including New Hampshire, Colorado, and West Virginia, have passed laws requiring school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. In Minnesota, the juvenile court judges of Dakota County agreed to a new policy that could result in teen bullies spending a night in detention.

Minnesota’s new information campaign is “a big, important first step. It raises the issue before the public,” Walter Roberts, an associate professor of counselor education at the Minnesota State University, Mankato, told the Pioneer Press.

“Fortunately, the message is getting out on the seriousness and the impact of bullying. Unfortunately, our kids have paid a heavy price until we got to this point.”

West Virginia schools still lack domestic violence curriculum

Despite a state law passed two years ago requiring schools to teach domestic violence prevention, West Virginia students are no closer to learning that hitting is wrong or how they can avoid date rape, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

State Department of Education officials and members of domestic violence prevention groups across the state are working together to develop a K-12 curriculum that would teach everything from why bullying can be harmful to the necessity of reporting sexual abuse.

They’ve created lesson plans, chosen topics, and evaluated textbooks—but what is lacking, they say, is the money to train teachers, buy classroom materials, and implement the curriculum.

The cost to implement the curriculum is estimated at between $50 and $500 per teacher, depending on classroom materials, bringing the total to somewhere between $1.2 million and $12 million.

“This is what you call an unfunded mandate,” Sue Julian, team coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition of Domestic Violence, told the Daily Mail.

“We were required to do this and we needed to do this, but the scope of the project is such that it would be impossible without money.”

Legislators did not specify a time frame for implementation of the curriculum, but advocates said they were hoping it could begin this school year.