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.Comments
Who is checkingAbout 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. Price said she does the checks on her computer and they cost $18.99. Substitutes applying for positions pay the charge. The search identifies felony convictions, prior addresses and other information, Price said. Problems can arise from people with common names and sometimes additional information is needed from the applicant. "We’re a small community where everyone pretty much knows everyone,” she said. "And the school board is very careful because no district can afford a lawsuit.” Even if an applicant passes the check, the school board ultimately has a final say on whether the person will be hired, Price said.
OSBI does checksDebbie McKinney, administrative programs officer at the OSBI, processes fingerprint-based background checks for the Education Department. She said it takes longer to get the national, fingerprint-based search results back and they are more expensive. The agency requesting the fingerprint-based searches must also have the statutory authority to do so, she said. "The name-based searches are less intrusive for the applicant,” McKinney said. "But the fact of the matter is the fingerprint-based are more thorough.” McKinney said name searches are only accurate if the applicant was charged with a crime under that name. Statewide searches only pull up convictions in the state. Fingerprint-based criminal records searches look outside of the state using a Federal Bureau of Investigation database, she said. "It doesn’t matter the name you gave us, the prints are going to hit,” she said. OSBI charges $15 for a basic name search that looks at state information, and $41 for a fingerprint-based check that includes state and federal information. By law, results must be returned to the districts within two weeks. The name-based searches can come back in a matter of minutes, McKinney said.
No immediate solutionJeff Mills, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Administration, said the choice to do checks is up to individual school boards. "It is an issue,” Mills said. "It is a situation and I don’t know what the immediate solution is considering the budget constraints.” Also, smaller districts with fewer applicants already have a hard time staffing non-certified positions, he said. The time it takes to get the searches back puts districts in a pinch, Miller said. OSBI must have the requests back to districts within two weeks, but districts often are forced to hire substitutes on a contingency basis before the checks are back. Julie Miller, general counsel for the state School Boards Administration, said: "It’s just finding a reliable way to access the information. I don’t know that there is any easy solution, but it’s definitely a problem.” Mills said one solution would be a database administrators can access without a middle man.