Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A 14-month-old law intended to tighten up the process school districts use to screen prospective hires -- and, ultimately, to better protect children -- may actually be making it easier for predators to work in schools, if only temporarily.
Superintendents and personnel directors in school districts across the state have told the Oklahoma Impact Team this is just one of several frustrations the law is causing for them. They believe lawmakers had the best intentions, in passing the law, but didn't appreciate fully what the impact might be.
The law, SB 2199, says school districts must conduct a fingerprint-based, national criminal history check, through the OSBI, on any and all prospective employees. Districts may pass along the cost of the check -- not to exceed $50 -- to the applicant, as a fee. The law also sets a limit of 42 working days (about two months) in which the process must be complete.
Prior to the law's passage, during the 2010 legislative session, school districts were doing background checks on the people they hired, but there were variations from district to district. Many, but not all, were contracting with private firms, like Accufax and AmeriCheck, to run national background checks, based on an applicant's social security number.
Some districts ran only statewide checks on the person's criminal history. One of those was the Duncan Public School district.
In December, 2009, 24-year-old Erwin Johnson, a substitute teacher in Duncan, was accused of sending lewd text messages to a student. It turned out that Johnson had been convicted of theft just one year earlier in Washington state -- an important fact that was missed by the state record check.
According to then-President Pro Tempore of the Senate Glenn Coffee, co-sponsor of SB 2199, the Duncan incident was the primary impetus for reform. Duncan schools immediately went to a nationwide background check.
On July 1, 2010, the new law went into effect, mandating the switch to fingerprint-based checks statewide.
District administrators complain about the higher cost of the new system. The private vendor checks that many districts used to rely on, typically, cost $25 per person. The current procedure is at least twice as expensive -- $10 (or more) for fingerprinting and $45 for OSBI to run the prints and conduct a national background check.
"It's a real struggle, considering how much the substitutes earn," explained Ronda Bass, superintendent of Noble Public Schools. "You take one of our child nutrition workers -- they only make $7.86 an hour, and most of them only work four hours a day, so it's a real financial strain for them to have to pay that cost."
Cost aside, school officials say, the fingerprinting process itself is also a struggle.
Depending on the location, job applicants may have to go to the local police department or travel to the nearest sheriff's office to get fingerprinted. Some of the state's larger districts have their own police departments and offer fingerprinting services on site.
The problem is, not all fingerprints are legible.
According to the OSBI, the State Department of Education submitted more than 18,000 manual, or ink, sets of fingerprints during FY 2011. Just under 25 percent of those were rejected, meaning thousands of applicants had to start the process over again.
As a result, heading into the current school year (the second school year the new law's been in place), many districts in and around Oklahoma City instructed their applicants to go straight to the State Department of Education, where there is a more precise, digital fingerprint scanner.
In truth, there are digital scanners elsewhere in the state. Prospective hires in and around Stillwater have been able to go to the Payne County Sheriff's office where they've had digital fingerprinting technology for about the past year. They charge $10 for a set of prints. And there are other sheriff's offices with digital scanners.
The State Department of Education also sent one scanner to the Tulsa Public School district, but TPS has not made the machine available to anyone other than its own job applicants.
That's left districts like Jenks, just a few miles to the south, in a very awkward position. They've had to tell a couple of their applicants, whose manual fingerprints were rejected twice this summer by OSBI, to drive all the way to Oklahoma City so they could get printed digitally. Last year, they had to pay for a bus to drive several job-seekers to OKC for fingerprints.
"We don't feel it's appropriate to send a new hire to Oklahoma City to be fingerprinted," stated Dana Ezell, Jenks' Director of Personnel. "There's gotta be a more workable solution."
"Any time you set up a rule," said Representative Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, "it's not going to be fair to everybody."
Representative Casey, a former school superintendent in Morrison, Oklahoma, tried to make the system more fair last session.
Casey proposed legislation that, among other things, would have made fingerprint-based background checks optional for districts. That language didn't make the bill's final draft. What did survive, and was passed into law, was a measure intended to help districts work around the delay in getting the background checks completed -- often more than six weeks.
Specifically, the bill gives districts the ability to hire someone without a completed background check for up to sixty days. What's more, the legislation exempts districts that make such "temporary" hires from any liability, in case the background check (once completed) did show the employee to have a criminal record.
Casey said this would be especially helpful in rural districts with limited access to fingerprinting equipment.
"You go over to the county courthouse and you get a fingerprint and it's smudged and it comes back," Casey related. "That's the reason for the sixty days."
"To me," said James Ryan, "that's a step backwards."
Ryan, assistant superintendent for personnel and operations in Stillwater Public Schools, understands Casey's goal, but says indemnifying school districts against an unintentionally bad hire is the wrong way to get there.
"We're not here to protect ourselves," Ryan declared, "we're here to protect children."
Stillwater is one of several districts choosing not to take advantage of the liability waiver. Jenks and Edmond are two others. These districts have decided they don't want to risk letting anyone begin working around kids without having seen their criminal history check.
But, with as many new hires as they typically have, they also can't afford to wait for the OSBI checks to come back. So, Stillwater, Jenks, Edmond, and others continue to contract with private firms for the SSN-based checks, which typically come back in 24 hours.
"We don't want to find out after the fact," said Randy Decker, Human Resources director for Edmond Public Schools, "which is why we've chosen to do the third-party vendors, to make sure that we get the information sooner."
These checks give districts peace of mind, but also add another $25 to the their total hiring costs.
"So, right now, what was a $25 bill is an $80 bill," lamented Stillwater's James Ryan. "I'd rather put those dollars in the classroom if at all possible, but we're not allowed to."
A spokesman for Oklahoma's new Superintendent for Public Instruction, Janet Barresi, says she is aware of these concerns with the law -- increased financial burden on districts at a time when appropriations are being cut, inadequate infrastructure (fingerprint scanners) to support the law, and a loophole that could potential compromise student security. The spokesman says Barresi will examine the cost and is already working with DHS to set up at least twenty digital fingerprint scanning stations across the state.
Increasing access to the more efficient digital scanners would reduce waiting time for the background checks, which, in theory, could do away with the need for the liability waiver.