Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study on the lack of criminal history checks conducted on teachers and corresponding rates of sexual misconduct by school staff. As the Executive Director of National Children's Alliance, the accrediting body for children's advocacy centers around the country and internationally, I am all too familiar with cases of sexual abuse by those in a position of trust.
While we would like to believe that schools are always a safe haven for children, our CACs all too frequently receive cases in which the teacher, counselor, janitor, school bus driver, or coach has abused a child under his/her care. It isn't shocking that sexual predators seek to work in schools as a way to have access to potential victims. What is shocking is that schools do not do their due diligence when hiring.
Schools claim that there are barriers to conducting effective background checks, and no doubt there are. A USA Today article from December 16, 2010, detailed laws in all 50 states regarding criminal history checks for school employees. These laws varied widely, with some only requiring those with "direct contact with children" to receive a criminal history check, and others requiring that all school employees submit to these checks. And shamefully, 15 states had no laws that explicitly prohibit sex offenders from teaching.
As the leader of an organization setting guidelines for the 700 plus child advocacy centers that served more than 259,000 sexually abused children in 2010, I strongly believe that all 50 states should have laws that prohibit those convicted of a sex offense against a minor from being employed by a school. In addition, all schools (both public and private) should be required by law to conduct criminal history checks on all school personnel. It is not enough to require criminal history checks and prohibit employment by only those "with direct contact with children." This is naïve thinking that fails to consider a sexual predator will use proximity to create contact, and that sexual assault can happen very quickly.
Moreover, schools that refuse to hire or release school personnel for sexual misconduct should be immune from civil actions by defendants if they act in good faith and with due process. It is absurd that any school should be forced to choose between "passing the trash" to another district and bankrupting its district with civil litigation to rid itself of an employee who has engaged in sexual misconduct with a student.
With all of this in mind, it should be noted that the GAO study did not require layers of confidentiality to be stripped away in order to discover the scope of the problem being analyzed. Rather, the GAO compared lists of school employees (public information) with public sex offender registries (also public information). What prevents schools from doing the same? This would by no means catch every sex offender since many crimes pre-date the registries or may not require registration (thus the necessity of full criminal history checks). Although comparing the lists and the registries is an easy first step in the right direction, a more effective long-term plan would be for every state to require full criminal history checks for all school employees.
Want to help? Talk with your school district superintendent about what background screening is conducted on employees where your child attends school. Learn if your state requires criminal history checks of every school employee. And if this is not a requirement, work with your local children's advocacy center or state chapter of children advocacy centers to advocate for that change (visit www.nationalchildrensalliance.org for more information on how to contact these organizations). We entrust our children to schools, let's ensure that schools earn this trust by keeping our kids safe.