Thanks to an idea suggested by one school district employee, now all North Carolina school districts can do criminal background checks on job applicants quickly and cheaply right from their desktop computers. But some privacy advocates worry that the ease with which these checks can be done could lead to abuses of the system.

State law requires schools to conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees. But to do a thorough check, the process traditionally has required a staff member to visit each county courthouse in the state and check records in each one separately.

In most cases, school districts opt to pay third-party private companies to do the background checks for them. “It was timely. It was costly,” said Steve Demiter, director of personnel at Burke County Public Schools in North Carolina, who asked the state technology department to simplify background checks.

“We were having a difficult time doing a criminal background check in North Carolina, because there was no [access to a] database of records,” Demiter said.

So officials at the N. C. Department of Public Instruction arranged for the state’s 117 school districts to have a direct computer link to the state criminal records database held by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The database has court records from all 100 counties, and each school district pays a one-time $70 fee, said Benny Hendrix, director of the division of networking technologies at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. So far, three-fourths of the state’s school districts have taken advantage of this service.

Burke County was the first school system to be connected to the database. Since the district started using the system last July, district officials have completed roughly 100 applications, Demiter said.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” he said. “I can get your application today, and in addition to background and reference checks, I can check your criminal past.”

Once a job applicant signs a release, then a designated district employee logs onto the computer. The employee enters the applicant’s date of birth and name, trying to locate a match. “It lets me know if there was any type of conviction and the disposition of the case,” Demiter said.

The computer site is securely password-protected, and the records available through the site are fairly accurate, Demiter said.

“It saves the people here from having to travel to the local court clerk to check the records,” he said. “Now [the records are] available on their desks.”

The service is also more effective at helping schools keep identified pedophiles and sex offenders away from students, its users say.

Currently, the state doesn’t have access to a national database of criminal records, so to do a criminal background check on an applicant who has lived outside of North Carolina, school officials have to resort to old-fashioned methods. For this reason, Demiter said he wishes someone would create a national database.

“Obviously we can do an FBI fingerprint , but the turnaround is awfully slow,” he said.

Providing school district employees with access to criminal records through an internet-based database worries some privacy advocates.

“Without any controls or limitations on the purpose for the access, such a system does raise privacy concerns,” said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For example, Sobel said, without regulations and periodic checks, what’s to stop an employee from logging on and conducting a background check on a student or parent?

Demiter said he and his assistant are the only people in his district who have access to the background check system, and they both had to take training offered by the courts. When conducting background checks, they follow the same rules as outlined in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Demiter is responsible for checking that the system is used appropriately, but he said he isn’t concerned about abuse, because the site is password-protected. He said it boils down to trusting his employee.

Related links:
Burke County School District
http://www.burke.k12.nc.us

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
http://www.dpi.state.nc.us††

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org