WASHINGTON – In the rush to fill vacant classrooms, Maryland schools hired hundreds of teachers this fall without waiting for results from criminal background checks.
State law requires background checks of most adults working with minors. But it can take up to 15 days for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to process fingerprints and up to eight weeks for an FBI check, time that many school systems did not have.
So they went ahead and hired the teachers they needed, pending the results of the checks. But most school systems said they are not worried that problems will develop as a result.
School officials claim that teachers are rarely the perpetrators of child abuse. And many systems count on other, less technical, ways of researching backgrounds, such as reference checks, computer systems and questions about convictions on applications.
“I’m obviously not very happy about it. But, we do check references. While we don’t have the complete background check back, we do have a fairly good idea of who we’re hiring,” said Tony Barnes, principal of Hamilton Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore.
Just under 100 of the 900 new teachers hired in Baltimore this year were still waiting for background check results when classes started this fall, said Ted Thornton Sr., director of human resources for the city schools.
Those kind of numbers concern parents like Wanda Hurt, vice president for legislation for the Maryland PTA.
“In this technological age, there should be some way we can find to speed this up because we don’t want pedophiles in our schools with our children,” Hurt said.
But, according to Prevent Child Abuse America, the number of cases of child abuse perpetrated by schoolteachers is vastly small. And school officials said there are other ways to check a potential teacher’s background.
“We don’t have anyone who did not teach or student-teach some place else. We ask [references], `Would you re-employ?’ If they say no or have any concerns, we wouldn’t hire that person,” said Stan Schaub, director of performance evaluation for Montgomery County schools, which also hired several teachers pending background checks.
Anne Arundel County goes a step beyond the state and FBI checks, using a private investigation firm that checks each applicant’s name against court records in their home jurisdictions. J. Mark Black, supervisor of investigations for Anne Arundel schools, said the firm returns results within 48 hours.
“We understand the state has delays. At least we have a preliminary look before we put them in the classroom,” said Black. “We screen every employee right off the bat.”
Other school systems have access to computer programs that can run quick checks of individuals. Harford County, for instance, runs every applicant through the Judicial Information System, which is connected to all district court records in Maryland. It does not provide information from other states, however.
“It’s not a panacea, but at least we’re going above and beyond waiting [for the state],” said Robert Benedetto, Harford County Schools investigator for human resources.
If there are concerns about an out-of-state applicant, he said, the schools check a program called Background America.
Of 17 counties reached for this article, only Howard County said it would not hire a teacher without results from a fingerprint check, according to Director of Human Resources Mamie J. Perkins.
Fingerprinting allows police to find all convictions linked to that person nationwide, said Len Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“This is not a name-based check so there is no fooling this system regardless of how many aliases or birth dates used,” Sipes said.
Maryland State Teachers Association President Pat Foerster does not expect many teachers to have past convictions anyway. “The majority of people that offer themselves in the teaching profession won’t have criminal backgrounds,” she said.
“I am no more concerned about someone who may be working four or five weeks here [while checks are made] than someone who we know now doesn’t have a record. They could be doing something,” Schaub said.