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Audit: Schools hired despite lag in criminal check

Audit: Schools hired despite lag in criminal check

The Schenectady City School District was among four area districts that hired people who had some ty

The Schenectady City School District was among four area districts that hired people who had some type of criminal history without a completed background check, according to a state Comptroller’s Office audit.

The audit from Comptroller Thomas G. DiNapoli faulted the State Education Department for a delay in processing background checks.

Legislation enacted in 2000 requires applicants for teaching and other positions in the state’s public schools to undergo a criminal background check by the Division of Criminal Justice Services and the FBI. However, it allows schools to hire employees on a conditional basis before the background checks are completed.

In Schenectady’s case, the employee was found to be eligible to work in the school after the background check was completed.

Superintendent Eric Ely said that when people apply for a jobs the district asks if they have been convicted of a crime. If they say yes, they ask the person to bring in the court paperwork.

“We’re more concerned about the felonies, but we look at any conviction. If it’s something that happened 20 years ago, 25 years ago and didn’t involve kids or schools, there’s a possibility that we would still employ you,” he said.

Ely said waiting for clearance could take several months, so people are hired on a probational basis. If the state determines that the person is denied clearance to work in schools, they are called into the main office and sent home immediately. They are either fired or given the chance to resign.

Ely does not believe there were any teachers among those denied clearance in this district or others. It may have been a paraprofessional or maintenance worker. He could recall only about one or two people that have been denied clearance during the five years he has been with the district.

Ely noted that this only applies to people hired from 2000 onward. People hired before that have not been subjected to this kind of background check.

Other area districts cited in the report were Bethlehem, Broadalbin-Perth and the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES.

The audit, which covered the period from March 2006 to March 2008, found that school districts hired 157 employees before the completion of their background check and of that number, 30 had some type of criminal history.

Only one of these people, hired by the Buffalo school district, would have been denied clearance for employment. This person had been convicted of gross sexual imposition.

The report said more serious charges against these people also included assault and criminal possession of a controlled substance.

“While many of the individuals were not convicted of the charges, their employment in public schools is still a cause for concern,” the report said.

Many of the background checks could not be completed because of data transmission failures or blurred fingerprint images, according to the release.

The report found more than 400 background checks that were in process for an average of at least eight months. The audit recommended that the State Education Department follow up with the Department of Criminal Justice Services or the FBI to find out why a background check has been delayed.

DiNapoli said children were put at risk because of the delay in background checks.

“Some background checks were delayed for as long as two years because no one was monitoring their status,” he said in a news release. “In the meantime, some of these individuals were working in our schools with our kids. The State Education Department must improve their oversight over this program and work with schools to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to make sure our kids are safe.”

The report recommended that SED track the status of each outstanding application, monitor how long it takes for background checks and notify applicants and school districts if it will take longer.

State Education Department officials said part of the problem was a significant backlog of applications in the process of switching from a paper-based system to an electronic format. It receives about 50,000 applications a year for background checks. SED also pointed to delays from the FBI and Division of Criminal Justice Services.

It said that conversion to the new computer system is now fully operational. Also, an electronic fingerprint process is now in place at 38 BOCES and school district locations statewide. This system completes fingerprint processing in 24 to 72 hours. In addition, fingerprint applications are tracked daily and school districts can access current information regarding the status of pending applications and clearance requests.

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