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New legislation requires fingerprint-based national background checks for school employees, licensed child-care providers

Beginning this fall, public and private school employees, and licensed child-care providers in Massachusetts will be required to submit to a fingerprint-based national criminal background check.

Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill into law that closes a loophole that had only required name-based statewide Criminal Offender Record Information checks, commonly referred to as CORI checks, and only for crimes committed in Massachusetts.

The new expanded background checks will be required of all teachers, school employees and early education providers, according to a statement from the Executive Office of Education.

The requirement also applies to employees who work for the schools as subcontractors, including bus drivers, according to education office spokeswoman, Heather Johnson.

The scope of the law may raise privacy concerns, by not providing explicit information about who gets to see the results, if there is an appeals process for incorrect or incomplete information uncovered through a check.

A local children’s advocate says the background checks are helpful and should be done, but admits they are not fail-safe.

Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop it Now!, an organization devoted to helping stop the sexual abuse of children, said background checks do not entirely remove risks to children.

She said the checks will only alert people to those who are already involved in the criminal justice system, not people who may have been operating outside the notice of the legal system.

Rice said it’s a “very small group” of people who will likely be affected by the new standard of checks.

How it works

Johnson said volunteers who work in the schools are exempt from the state-mandated national check, although schools can opt to submit employees or prospective employees to one.

New hires will be required to submit to the expanded background checks beginning this fall, while current employees have up to three years to supply their information, according to the bill.

Licensed educators and specialists will be charged $55, all others subject to the checks will pay $35, according to Johnson.

She said this change brings Massachusetts in line with the remaining 49 states in requiring national checks. It is not, she said, motivated by any specific incident that more extensive background checks might have prevented.

Fees will be deposited in the Fingerprint-Based Background Check Trust Fund, according to the bill, H4307. The fund’s sole purpose, according to the text of the bill, is to cover the costs of carrying out the background checks and disseminating the results.

The cost of collecting the prints and filing the paperwork will be paid for by the applicants, which Johnson said means the effort will be no extra cost for the state.

The information will be provided to Massachusetts State Police, and then forwarded to the FBI, according to the bill.

According to the law, fingerprint-based checks of both the state and national criminal history databases will be conducted before issuing any license.

Local law enforcement raised concerns about the manpower and materials that would be required to collect and process hundreds, if not thousands of fingerprints and background check data over the next three years.

Easthampton Police Chief Bruce McMahon said via email, “(I) do have a concern of the officer hours it will take to print over 300 people.”

Johnson said, the state is looking into hiring an outside vendor that specializes in collecting fingerprints, to prevent local or state police from having to absorb that burden.

Johnson said using the services of a single vendor means there will be uniformity in the collecting and processing of the prints, where there may not be if local police departments, all with different equipment and capabilities, did so.

That vendor has not been selected yet, Johnson said.

The bill also authorizes school committees, superintendents of any city, town or regional school district and the principal or other administrator, to review background checks every three years “for the purpose of determining the suitability of current and prospective employees.”

J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said as a result of the expanded checks, schools will be aware of all adult and youthful convictions, acquittals, pending offenses, cases continued without a finding and instances where charges are dropped.

He said schools won’t be provided information about sealed, juvenile or civil cases. Considine drew a distinction between juvenile cases and youthful offenses.

Juvenile cases are those that are handled in juvenile court, and are confidential. Youthful offenses can include crimes where the defendant is tried as an adult.

It will be up to the individual schools to determine what offenses are severe enough to prevent a hire or lead to a termination, Considine said.

As details of the regulations are developed over the next few months, Considine said he expects there will be an appeal process to determine if information returned from the checks may be incomplete or in error.

Ben Taglieri, vice president of the Northampton Association of School Employees and a teacher at Northampton High School, said Mass Teachers Association has lent its support to the changes and expects local unions to follow suit.

Taglieri said, “No one’s going to be thrilled about going to the police and submitting their fingerprints and paying a fee.”

He said most understand the desire for more protection for children and said no one wants to appear they are coming down on the opposite side of that.

Taglieri said he’s not sure how effective the new measure will be, but said it will be interesting to see after all the new data is collected whether it reveals any previously hidden or unreported criminal backgrounds of employees.

Alan Rubin, of the committee for public counsel services in Northampton, said there is always a compromise between protection and privacy, especially when it comes to children’s safety.

“That’s always going to be a difficult decision to make,” Rubin said.

Rubin said there are certain jobs and positions, including teachers, for which a higher level of scrutiny is to be expected. Lawyers, judges and those who do certain types of government work are all subject to more stringent background checks than other jobs, he noted, and it’s not unreasonable to have checks in place for people who work with children.

Full text of the bill, H4307 can be found at the Massachusetts Legislature’s website.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com

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