School officials raise possibility of fingerprinting new teachers

By: - June 20, 2005 5:32 am

Winston-Salem Journal


Supporters say it could help inquiries on criminal activity


There are a number of professions in which North Carolina law requires fingerprinting, including bail bondsmen and caregivers at assisted-living centers. Teachers are not on the list.

North Carolina is one of only four states that don’t require fingerprinting as part of a pre-employment background screening for teachers. It is also one of 20 states that do not require criminal background checks to obtain teaching licenses.

Instead, individual school districts decide for themselves whether to conduct background checks and how far those checks will go. But critics say that gives too much autonomy to local schools and puts children at risk.

"The bad folks look for places they can slip into. Fingerprinting helps serve as a deterrent," said Roy Einreinhofer, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. "If you’re a criminal, you probably aren’t going to go to a state where you have to be fingerprinted."

Because school-district policies vary, a teacher with a criminal past can target districts with the weakest background-check policies.

Davidson County Schools have for about 10 years required prospective teachers to give fingerprints that can be compared with a national database kept by the FBI.

But in Rockingham County, the screening system depends on the honesty of prospective hires. Rockingham uses a private company to check North Carolina criminal records, but an out-of-state check is only conducted if a person admits to living elsewhere, said Cary Atkins, the director of recruitment.

Some state education officials are concerned about the absence of statewide teacher-background-check regulations.

Howard Lee, the chairman of the State Board of Education, said that weak laws in North Carolina could make the state an attractive place for teachers trying to escape criminal pasts.

"We’ve had a rash of problems with teachers lately, and I’m beginning to question whether the system we have is serving us as it needs to," Lee said. "We’ve got to give parents some assurances."

Applicants for teaching licenses in North Carolina are required to disclose criminal convictions, and about 320 did in 2004. But there is no mechanism to verify if any applicant is telling the truth.

Convictions that people have disclosed include underage alcohol possession, marijuana possession, breaking and entering, and larceny. None of the 2004 applicants was denied a teaching certificate.

The most recent data gathered about teachers’ criminal backgrounds at the state level dates to 1995, when education officials compared the names of certified teachers with people who served time in state prisons.

About 35 matches were found, said Harry Wilson, the State Board of Education’s attorney who handles teacher disciplinary investigations. A similar check has not been done since, though Wilson acknowledges that it would provide some safeguards.

One obstacle to establishing tougher checks is resistance from such groups as the N.C. Association of Educators. Eddie Davis III, the president of the NCAE, said he would not favor fingerprinting prospective teachers.

"We probably feel that would be invasive," Davis said. "Unless we get to a point where there’s a major problem, I would think local school districts should deal with this. It seems to be working now."

In Guilford County, school officials say they have strengthened their background checks since learning about the pasts of two educators who now face criminal charges.

Superintendent Terry Grier said that the state needs to take more responsibility. "I think it’s a mistake to say you can pass everything down to the districts."

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066