PINE BELT (WDAM) - School districts in the Pine Belt take precautions beyond those required by state when reviewing applications for new faculty and staff members, but new access to a national database could help districts complete more thorough background checks.
Tess Smith, superintendent of the Lamar County School District, said more than 100 people apply to work in her district each year, and before they are ever presented to the school board to be hired, each is screened at both a state and national level.
"We send that first to Mississippi crime level, and once it clears there, we go ahead and take it a step further and go ahead and send it for an FBI background check as well," Smith said. "Just to make sure we don't miss anything."
Automatically sending applicants for a national background check is standard in the Petal and Forrest County school districts as well, which is above what is required by the Mississippi Department of Education. The state only mandates districts check with the FBI if the Mississippi crime record is clean.
"We decided that it was important that we go beyond just the basic state-level requirements, (and) that we do a search which would include any person who had a felony charge in any of any of the states," said Gina Gallant, personnel director for the Forrest County School District.
Smith said, "Through our school safety, we decided that we wanted to take that extra step. It is a little bit more expensive, but I think it's worth it because sometimes we find a few things that you need to know about before you hire someone."
In Forrest County, the search starts with principals at the school where the applicant would like to work.
"It begins at the school level with the principal just to ensure that there's nothing out there that would be gathered very quickly," Gallant said. "The recommendation comes to our office, and we complete our 10-finger background fingerprinting check."
"We have to report everything, but anything that falls under standard 4, which is the student teacher relationship, any issue I have 10 days to report that or it or it puts my personal license at risk," Smith said.
However, reporting standards vary from state to state, and punishment for misconduct is not always criminal. If no charges are filed, the violation does not show up in a background check.
"Sometimes, depending on what happened in another district and how it was handled, yeah, you may end up inheriting someone else's problem," Smith said. "That's what we try to avoid in every situation."
The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification or NASDTEC aims to help states, and more recently schools and districts, avoid potential problems. Executive Director Phillip Rogers said keeping track of misconduct especially important, and sometimes difficult, when sanctions often come from an administrative hearing, not a courtroom.
"It kept me up at night when I realized of what a big hole was left unfilled, that was open for people to move into school districts in non-certified positions," Rogers said. "It would be possible for a person to lose their license in one state for some inappropriate activity as an educator and go to another state and get a license, and no one would know."
Teachers applying for certified jobs in Mississippi are screened at the state level, but those applying for jobs that do not require a teaching license are not. Rogers said the NASDTEC Clearinghouse was created almost 30 years ago to allow state licensing offices access to a databases of educators who have lost licenses throughout the U.S. All 50 states are members.
Rogers said he could not say if the Mississippi Department of Education is looking at it when processing licenses, but said it is entering case records. Now, Rogers said it is continuing to bridge gaps left in background checks by allowing schools and districts to use its database as well.
"It's those non-certified positions that are a big, big opportunity for people to slip into a district who have had problems taken against their certificate," he said. "Many states began to allow non-certified people to become coaches and sponsors of groups and things of that nature that did not have a certificate. So, you lose your certificate in Florida for inappropriate contact with students. You go up to North Carolina. You don't have a certificate, and you know it's been entered into NASDTEC. So you don't apply for a certified job. You apply for a non-certified job. Since the districts didn't have access to the Clearinghouse, they would never know that you lost your certificate. There's no criminal case, and they would never know that you had lost your certificate for an inappropriate relationship with a student."
Rogers said the database is on a secure dedicated server, and district must have login credentials to access information.
"I like the idea of that database," Smith said.
Gallant said, "It would definitely be extremely beneficial that we'd be able just to log in and pull that particular information."
As far as questions about confidentiality, Rogers said the licensing decisions are "public and final," and can sometimes be found with by Googling. He also said it does not contain any court records or much any information at all.
"A lot of people think that it contains a lot of information," he said. "It doesn't. It just is meant to be an alert, and we say very clearly it's not a reason not to hire someone. You just need to check o why that action was taken against their certificate. They do see enough to know that there is a reason for them to ask more questions."
Gallant and Smith said there are certain red flags, like an applicant not listing the last principal he or she worked for as reference or leaves off a district entirely. School officials know this requires more research. The Clearinghouse is an additional resource.
"It does provide extra confidence that that person is qualified and safe to practice," Rogers said.
Smith said, "Any layer they could add that would ensure that we put the right people in the right place would be great."
Rogers said districts and schools must be members to access the information for an annual associate member fee of $500 and a subscription fee, which runs about $100 for most districts.