Background checks become law

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Staff Writer

Published Aug. 10, 1999

Teachers who are new to Alabama’s classrooms this school year are facing a more stringent application process.

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In the past, they had to undergo state background checks, and a new law expands that to a nationwide screening.

As a result of the new law, all school employees hired after July 1 must be fingerprinted and undergo nationwide criminal background checks.

The new law, which Gov. Don Siegelman signed June 8, has increased the workload at Troy City Schools. But officials say the work is worthwhile if it keeps criminals off campus.

"Before we fingerprinted people applying for certificates, so we would have done some of the work anyway," said Hank Jones, superintendent of Troy City Schools. "But now we check everybody, and it has tremendously strained Ms. Von Feldt."

Not only has the new law created a backlog of work on the local level – it is taking up to five months for state offices to complete the nationwide background checks, Jones said.

In the meantime, new employees are allowed to work in the schools.

"We employ the person and notify him or her that employment is terminated if the background check turns up a problem," Jones said. "We still check references like we did before, so we have a significant amount of information on that person without the background check."

He said he does not expect the system to be backed up once background checks become more routine.

The 1999 law applies to workers who have unsupervised access to children, which includes almost all school employees, Jones said. The checks cover teachers, substitute teachers, support personnel like bookkeepers and secretaries, instructional aides, bus drivers, maintenance and lunchroom workers.

The new law applies to all public, private and church-run schools, as well as university programs involving school-age children. It covers new employees, according to the legislation. School officials can do background checks on any veteran school worker if they have reasonable suspicion of a problem.

The improved background check is part of the application process. A prospective employee with unsupervised access to children will pay $49 to be fingerprinted and have the FBI use the fingerprints for nationwide check for convictions, the law states.

A committee at the State Department of Education will review the FBI information. If it sees a problem, a hearing officer will review the case and make a recommendation to State Superintendent of Education.

The State Superintendent, who has the final call on whether the applicant is rejected, will be looking for convictions of sexual abuse of children, distributing drugs and violent assaults, according to the law.

Even before the new law went into effect, employees in Troy City Schools received statewide background checks before they were hired, Jones said. They were fingerprinted when they applied for state certification.

People applying for certification in Troy paid $25 for fingerprinting, and the school system paid a monthly fee for the statewide background check service, he said.

Since 1996, the State Board of Education has checked state criminal records on new teachers in public schools and on veteran teachers where a criminal case became apparent. The new law expands these checks to nationwide records.

"The new law enhances what we were already doing," Jones said.