On October 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act." It requires states to conduct more comprehensive criminal background checks of their current and future school employees, partly in response to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report that found inconsistent rules in each state governing background checks for school employees.
Subsequent coverage by the Associated Press and discussions about it on Twitter brought to light concerns that teachers’ unions have with the legislation. The concerns stem mostly from the fact that the new federal rules may infringe on existing union bargaining contracts and could potentially be a barrier to hiring minorities who may have non-violent criminal activity in their backgrounds. I became familiar with these issues during a similar effort to encourage background checks at private sector childcare centers a few years ago.
It is stunning to me that there are no national regulations aimed at preventing sexual and violent predators from working in schools or childcare centers. Concerns with "false positives" (employees inaccurately being flagged as having criminal activity in their backgrounds) and the racial inequities of such background checks miss the point.
While the idea underpinning the legislation is sound, implementation would be difficult and could take years. One of the fundamental obstacles is the poor quality of crime statistic reporting and data in many states. This information is not always centralized or automated, making it difficult to conduct comprehensive background checks in rapid fashion.
In some instances, background checks will reveal minor crimes and misdemeanors rather than the types of crimes that the checks are intended to find. Whether to use these minor offenses as a sign that an employee may not be suitable to work with children is the $64 million dollar question.
While the legislation should move forward, the debate around it is an opportunity for law enforcement, various agencies currently assisting the public and private sector with background checks, the mental health sector and educators to come together to craft stronger screening tools that will prevent sexual or violent predators from finding their way into classrooms.