Backlog delaying scrutiny of educators' criminal histories

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Hundreds of longtime educators whose criminal histories haven't been examined in years, if ever, are returning to their classrooms without background checks, the state says.

The state didn't even require fingerprints to be submitted until Sept. 5, after the start of school in most districts, but a backlog in federal background checks means it could take much longer before the Ohio Department of Education examines the results. In addition, the department's priority is to check the background of new licensees before looking to see whether longtime school workers have criminal records.

All school workers must be fingerprinted for state and federal background checks under a state law enacted last fall. But educators with permanent or 8-year licenses are particularly affected, because many had not been checked.

Many school districts, in an attempt to make sure teachers were in good standing well ahead of the state's date, had set deadlines in May or June for their employees to be fingerprinted. Some of their early-bird efforts appear to have been thwarted by the backlog.

Jim Miller, who oversees licensure and educator discipline for the Ohio Department of Education, said he's confident that the department won't discover any serious criminal histories. "I wish I could give 100 percent certainty. They've been in these school districts for 20 years--they're good people," he said. So far, the department has not reviewed many educators' results. "I'm predicting about 2 percent of the people may have something (in their criminal histories). A lot of them are going to be old things from the '70s and '80s--an old DUI or something like that," Miller said. Each will be investigated by the Education Department's professional-conduct bureau, though not until at least mid-September.

It appears that as many as 350 Columbus schools employees still have not been fingerprinted, district officials say. The new law, the first of two enacted in response to The Columbus Dispatch series "The ABCs of Betrayal" about the state's educator-discipline system, requires checks of both licensed employees, such as teachers, and unlicensed workers such as secretaries, bus drivers and food-service workers.

The Education Department will deactivate the licenses of people who don't prove that they've sent fingerprints to the state. Unlicensed school workers will be dealt with at the school level, said Cynthia Picciano, Columbus' executive director of human resources. "For the non-licensed folks, if we don't have evidence they have submitted their fingerprints by Sept. 5, we're not going to let them work on Sept. 6," Picciano said.

In mid-July, the department mailed postcards to 12,000 educators whose results hadn't been received yet. Some might not actually need checks, because they're not using the licenses in question or already had submitted their prints. But because the results have been slow to arrive, mailers were sent anyway. The mailing list included more than 650 Franklin County school workers, including several area superintendents. Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris was one of them, although the district says her prints have been sent.

Educators have been submitting their fingerprint information since April, and the backlog reached its height earlier this summer, said Virginia Potts, who oversees civilian fingerprinting for the Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. The bureau has been encouraging educators to submit electronically, and that's helped speed up the process, she said. "When you're doing 100,000 (checks) a month, there's always going to be instances where it takes longer," Potts said, noting that most FBI results are now complete within 30 days.

The backlog didn't solely stem from teachers, she said. Medical workers, foster-care workers and camp employees all must undergo checks, too.