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Is the Teacher in the Classroom Next Door a Convicted Felon?

Share Discovering that felons work in school systems happens more often than one might wish. This week, Education World examines the problems that have led many communities and states to require background checks for all school personnel. Included: Practical tips from attorneys and other experts who specialize in school safety issues.

  • In Cleveland, school officials have fired or disciplined more than two dozen employees -- including teachers, classroom aides, coaches, and administrators -- whose background checks revealed a variety of criminal charges. Many had illegally concealed convictions on their state certification applications, according to officials.

  • In Hartford, Connecticut, a former state legislator who, in 1997, pleaded no contest to three felonies -- including witness tampering and conspiracy to commit election fraud -- was approved in 1998 as a substitute teacher in the system. When he recently applied for a full-time position, school officials reviewed his file and rejected his application.

  • A teacher who served time in a Pennsylvania prison for sexually abusing children -- and did not have his license revoked -- got a job teaching in New York after he got out of prison. He is no longer teaching; he is back in prison.
Discovering that felons work in school systems happens more often than one might wish.


Tennessee is one state trying to make its schools safer. Starting January 1, 2000, Tennessee will "make criminal background checks mandatory for applicants for teaching positions and other positions having proximity to children."

"Previously, the law was permissive," Tennessee School Boards Association staff attorney Christy L. Ballard told Education World. She noted a current provision that requires "all persons applying for teaching positions and other positions requiring proximity to children to disclose whether they have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony in Tennessee or any other state." That provision, Ballard said, also requires applicants to disclose whether they have been dismissed for certain reasons specified in other sections of the code.

"The statute provides that any knowing falsification of the required information shall be sufficient grounds for termination of employment and shall also constitute a Class A misdemeanor, which must be reported to the district attorney general for prosecution," adds Ballard.

Tennessee isn't the only state taking action.

"Most states now require fingerprinting and obtaining a criminal history," attorney Dean Pickett, a specialist in school law, told Education World. Pickett was among the speakers at this year's annual conference of the National School Boards Association's Council of School Attorneys. "This is vital to the screening process, but it must be done with the understanding that it will reveal only those who have encountered the criminal justice system in some way. Our studies teach us that the typical pedophile employed in our schools makes his or her way through three different school employment settings before being stopped."


  • Sixteen states do not require criminal background checks for first-time applicants for professional certificates, so if someone does have a history of past offenses, those states will never know.

  • Twenty-one states do not require employees to be fingerprinted, either for certification or employment, and have no immediate plans to require it. (See an Education Week story, 'Passing the Trash' by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again.)

  • Colorado requires no background checks for non-teaching school personnel, only for prospective teachers, so a person with a history of driving under the influence, for example, could be driving your child's school bus.

  • A district files non-teaching personnel's fingerprints directly with the Bureau of Investigation, but applicants are frequently hired before the district hears the results. It is perfectly legal for a school to hire and/or retain a person who has a felony or another criminal record.

  • In at least 16 states, educators convicted of sex crimes against students will not automatically lose their licenses; therefore, a teacher who has a history of having sex with students may continue to teach.

There are ways to limit the possibility that situations like those will occur, Pickett told Education World.

"Adopt a common application form for prospective school employees that requests all the information the district needs, not just what a candidate has highlighted on a rsum," said Pickett. "Make it clear that applicants who give incomplete or false information about their backgrounds can be fired, criminally prosecuted, or have their licenses revoked."

School systems also need to alter the way they give out references for former employees, added Pickett. "If we want good-faith responses to requests for information about employees, we must protect public employers from defamation suits when they provide them. Out of fear of being sued for defamation, or in exchange for resignations without a fight, many employers give positive or neutral references for former employees who have histories of improprieties."

"Lying is legally fatal," said Pickett. "The California Supreme Court's decision in Randi W. v. Muroc Joint Unified School held a series of five school districts and their administrators liable when, time after time, they gave glowing references to a former administrator. The administrator was accused of serious improper behavior with students at each former work site and then was sued for such behavior with a student in his new place of employment.

"Saying nothing when the administrator has knowledge of prior bad acts and knowledge that the former employee is seeking employment with children is more and more likely to result in litigation," added Pickett. "When an employee suspected of improper behavior resigns, there should be no negotiation of settlement agreements that place a gag order on telling the truth."


Education World talked with Peter D. Blauvelt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, and St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, school board member Neal Hennegan. The two men suggested other ways to make schools safer for the children who attend them:

  • Currently, some states require no background checks; some that do require only cursory checks, Blauvelt said. All states should require a comprehensive background check for prospective school employees.

  • All of an applicant's criminal arrests should be reported to school districts. Currently, law enforcement agencies are not required to forward criminal records to the FBI or to various state police organizations. According to Blauvelt, unless a school system knows of and sends an inquiry to each of the jurisdictions in which the prospective employee lived, the system will not attain a truly accurate evaluation.

  • Recheck criminal records every five years, Blauvelt suggested: "Once a person is hired with a 'clean' record, there is nothing to prevent the individual from committing a 'reportable' offense in another jurisdiction and not having the local school board know anything about the arrest."

  • Improve students' and school employees' awareness about what constitutes sexual abuse in schools, added Hennegan. "We have provided mandatory training and a toll-free number to report incidents, further strengthened the policy, and published and distributed pamphlets describing the policy to all parents and students. We have identified roles in the organization to respond to allegations," he said. Don't assume employees know what behavior is wrong, he added. Be sure employees understand the repercussions if they are caught sexually abusing a student; then enforce those punishments if necessary. Provide professional ethics training to school employees both before they begin their careers and during their working lives.


When the American Association of University Women Foundation surveyed more than 1,600 students in eighth through 11th grade, 25 percent of the girls and 10 percent of the boys who said they had been harassed or abused said the harasser was a school employee. Another nationwide search conducted last year uncovered 244 cases of sex offenses against students by school employees within just a six-month period. The offenses involved everything from unwanted touching to years-long sexual relationships and serial rape. The students ranged in age from kindergartners to high schoolers, and most -- about two-thirds -- were female. Most of the abusers -- more than seven out of ten -- were teachers; principals, janitors, bus drivers, and librarians. In only two of the cases did authorities ultimately conclude that students had fabricated claims.

In many states, school employees who have sex with students aren't committing criminal acts. In 20 states, sex between a student and an adult employee is perfectly legal as long as the student is 16. If the student is 17, add three more states to the list. In an additional 25 states, it is legal if the student has turned 18. Currently, sex between a school employee and a student of age is legal in 48 states! Additionally, the National School Boards Association, American Federation of Teachers, and National Education Association have no policy stating sex between school employees and students should not exist, according to a 1998 Education Week story, 'Zero Tolerance' of Sex Abuse Proves Elusive. There is very little concerted national attention paid to the problem or to the need for aggressive efforts to curtail it, but the Ed Week article did offer additional suggestions from attorneys:

  • Create, maintain, and use easily accessible databases with school employees' job and licensure histories.

  • Increase state and local resources to screen prospective school employees. Missouri, for example, recently created a five-person professional-practices unit to handle the work that was formally assigned to a single lawyer. An understaffed organization cannot perform thorough background checks in a timely manner.

  • Toughen the laws and make sex with students a crime for school employees. Tougher laws are needed. In states where sexual involvement with students is not a crime, school districts have difficulty firing an employee who does it. Taking an employee to court to get him or her dismissed can be expensive and time-consuming and requires ample proof. Sexual abuse cases are ones in which many victims are reluctant to testify.


After several high-profile cases that galvanized activists and captured lawmakers' attention, several states have adopted stricter laws. Others have jumped on board to help.

  • Sixteen states have made engaging in sex with students under 18 illegal for people in positions of trust and authority -- such as coaches or teachers. In Ohio, it is illegal even if the student is 18 or older.

  • In California, districts must now inform state investigators if an employee resigns amid allegations of wrong-doing. As of 1996, employers in Michigan may not suppress or expunge from his or her personal records any information about an employee's unprofessional conduct. Since 1997, 26 states have adopted laws protecting public employers from defamation suits if they provide good-faith responses to requests for information about employees. Even in states without such laws, courts now traditionally protect employers who pass along factual information. (See 'Passing the Trash' by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again, an Education Week, 12/9/98, story.)

  • To help stop molesters from just moving on to another school, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification now runs an on-line clearinghouse that lists all disciplinary actions states have taken against educators and the reasons for those actions. A school system can check to see whether a prospective new employee is on the list; however, the clearinghouse is only as good as the data it is provided. If a school system is lax in prosecuting offenders or does not add names to the list, it compromises the value of the clearinghouse as a prevention tool. (See 'Passing the Trash' by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again.)


Many members of the education community still cling to the notion that sex between school personnel and students is a rare, idiosyncratic occurrence, but few people whose lives have been touched by the problem share that view. A 48 Hours TV segment, "Teacher's Pet," first aired in April of 1998, described the lives of several children who had been abused by school employees as they grew up. As they got older, many turned to drugs or alcohol -- or worse -- to wipe the experience from their minds. Others suffered from anorexia.

Terri Miller, a Nevada mother of four, successfully lobbied in her state last year for tough laws to bar school employees from sexual relations with students. Miller told Education Week: "Students commit suicide over this, or they are crippled emotionally for life. As a parent, I send my children to school to be educated, not to be abused by the person I'm entrusting them with." (See the Education Week story, Sex With Students: When Employees Cross the Line.)

There are signs of progress; many states are taking visible steps to improve the protection they provide their charges from the time they get on the school bus to the time they get off it. Are schools doing all they can? How many indelible scars on young lives will it take to wake-up school districts that have yet to modify any of their old policies? Shouldn't 244 reported cases of sex offenses against students by school employees in a six-month period be enough of a wake-up call?



  • "Church Faced Dilemma in Abuse Case" by Nolan and Swerczek, New Orleans Times Picayune, August 7, 1999. This article describes a recent sex abuse scandal in a Catholic school in New Orleans.

  • "School Probe Powers Sought; Sex Incidents Prompt Proposal" by Stacey MacGlashan, New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 23, 1999. The article describes sex abuse cases that have occurred in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, during the last few years.

  • "Criminal Background Checks for Teachers," Education Week, May 6, 1998. Two dozen Cleveland educators were discovered to have criminal backgrounds.

  • "City School Workers Face New Scrutiny" by Rodriguez and Chedekel, Hartford Courant, August 21, 1999. The city of Hartford considers background checks on all employees.

  • "Teachers' Background Checks Missed Offenses," Denver Post, 1998. Though a background check uncovered felonies in an applicant's past, current law prevented the agency from telling the school about it.

  • " 'Zero Tolerance' of Sex Abuse Proves Elusive," Education Week, 1998. In 20 states, sex between a student and an adult employee is legal, as long as the young person is at least 16. If the student is 17, add three more states to the list.

Article by Glori Chaika
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

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