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Oklahoma schools lack uniform background check policy

BY VALLERY BROWN Modified: January 10, 2010 at 12:13 am •  Published: January 10, 2010
The lack of a universal, national background check for Oklahoma’s substitute teachers has resulted in problems in some schools, the latest incident occurring in Duncan only a month ago.

Unlike teachers certified through the state Education Department, noncertified substitutes and other personnel are not required to have background checks. To be certified in the state, teachers must submit fingerprints to be checked against a nationwide criminal database.

Individual districts can determine what kind and whether substitute teachers must pass a felony record search, said Shelly Hickman, spokeswoman for the state Education Department.

A Duncan Schools substitute in December was found to have a felony record after he was accused of sending lewd text messages to a 16-year-old student.

Erwin Johnson, 24, was charged Dec. 3 in Stephens County District Court in Duncan with two felony counts of lewd proposals to a child.

Johnson was convicted of second-degree theft in Washington in 2008 before being hired by the district. The conviction did not turn up on a state criminal records check.

Duncan Public Schools Superintendent Sherry Labyer has said the district will now use nationwide record checks to screen applicants.

"We don’t knowingly employ anyone who has been convicted of a felony,” she told The Duncan Banner newspaper after Erwin was arrested.

Who is checking
About 281 school districts requested background checks through the state Education Department during the 2008 school year.

In 2009, 265 school boards used the department to check employees.

As of January, there are 532 school districts in the state.

Hickman said the state Education Department is only involved with districts that go through them to conduct searches. The agency then works with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to do the searches.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools can go directly to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for background checks or contract with a private vendor.

Other districts can choose to go through private vendors or do the checks themselves, Hickman said.

→Oklahoma City Public Schools spokeswoman Tierney Cook said the district screens every potential employee at the school system with a national, name-based background check. She said the check costs $28 and is deducted from the employee’s payroll check if they are hired. The district pays the cost for volunteers and if an employee isn’t hired.

→Bridge Creek Public School officials in Grady County said the district uses name-based, state searches through a private company. They have the ability to do national searches through the private company as well.

→Ardmore Public Schools uses a private service for nationwide, name-based searches of potential employees, said Laurie Price, administrative assistant to the assistant superintendent in charge of personnel.

Checks: A person applying as a substitute teacher can only submit to one background check a year. Those felony record searches can be sent to other school districts where they apply.

Fees: The fees can be paid by the district or the applicant and are deposited in the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation revolving fund.

Requirements: Substitutes cannot be employed for more than 70 school days during a school year if they are non-certified. Substitutes with a bachelor’s degree or a lapsed or expired certification can only teach 100 school days a year.

Assignments: Non-certified substitutes cannot have the same assignment for more than 20 school days during the school year. There is no limit to the amount of time a certified substitute can hold an assignment.

Hiring: Hiring requirements are set by each district. Small and large districts allow high-school graduates to substitute teach. Many districts set pay scales based on the level of education the substitute has or whether or not the applicant is certified to teach in the state.

Non-certified pay: Most districts pay $40 to $55 daily for non-certified substitutes.


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