Background Checks: Another Important Layer of K-12 Campus Security

Screening school employees, staff, bus drivers and volunteers will protect students and reduce campus and district liability exposures.

K-12 educators in many states from Connecticut to Alaska have been charged with sexual misconduct involving students. Those charged include school board members, principals, teachers and coaches. Even volunteers faced similar sex crime allegations. Other charges against adults on campus included kidnapping, assault, providing alcohol to minors, conspiracy to cheat on standardized tests, fraud, drug possession/sales and driving under the influence.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of administrators, teachers, staff members and volunteers are honest, caring individuals working hard to improve the lives of students. But as many districts and individual campuses continue to add surveillance cameras, access control and other layers of security, they overlook initial and regularly updated background checks of faculty, staff, volunteers, vendors and other campus visitors that have direct, unsupervised contact with children.

According to the federal Government Accounting Office, virtually all states now require some type of background checks for teachers, yet:

  • 32 states don’t require background checks of volunteers
  • 12 have no requirement for checking on contractors granted unsupervised contact with children
  • Five states even exempt some employee categories, such as bus drivers and athletic coaches

The depth of teacher background checks varies from state to state. Some require thorough state and federal checks, along with a review of national sex offender registries. Others only check their own criminal databases. That ignores a mobile society in which teachers with a criminal past can move to another state. Also, states vary on rechecking employees with some requiring annual reviews and others only every five years.

National Requirements Are on the Horizon
Federal legislation may soon set a background check baseline for all states to follow. Earlier this year two U.S. senators – Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. – introduced the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar bill in late 2013. Despite the Senate version being bottled up in committee for months, backers remain optimistic about the act’s long-term prospects.

The proposed law would require all state education agencies receiving federal funds to perform background checks on school employees using state and federal background databases, child abuse and neglect registries, the FBI fingerprint ID system and the National Sex Offender Registry. School districts would be prohibited from hiring anyone ever convicted of violent or sexual crimes, homicide or child abuse, neglect or pornography. Applicants convicted within the past five years of felony assault or drug offenses would also be banned. Districts that don’t comply would lose a portion of their federal education dollars.

RELATED: 4 Things Background Checks Often Uncover

The checks would be valid only for one year, and the costs would likely be paid by employees, as most districts can’t afford the expense of expanded annual checks that can run as much as $40 each.

The law would also ban a practice known as “passing the trash” in which a district asks an employee suspected, but not yet charged or convicted, of a crime to quit with the promise of a positive letter of recommendation to help secure a job elsewhere.

Sen. Toomey said the bill is necessary because nationwide, at least 325 teachers were arrested for sexual misconduct during the first nine months of 2014. And those are only the incidents we know about.

Conduct Checks or Be Legally Liable
How important are background checks on a school campus? A widely cited 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education estimated that one in 10 students during their school years will be sexually abused by a teacher. Add to that even more abuse from other school employees, contractors and volunteers.

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