Still no law requiring fingerprint background checks for teachers in N.C. public schools

Updated: Aug. 19, 2019 at 10:49 AM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - State education officials and a national media group have found North Carolina’s background check system for public school teachers to be woefully inadequate.

The state does not require fingerprint background checks for teachers, and the Department of Public Instruction relies on the honor system, since teachers self-report their criminal history when they apply for a teaching licence. But repeated calls by parents, educators, and some lawmakers for stricter background checks have gone unheeded.

There are examples in recent years of teachers who managed to get jobs in North Carolina schools despite having their teaching license revoked in other states for inappropriate behavior with students. In New Hanover County, a former teacher is now in jail accused of initiating a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old when he was working as a teacher at Myrtle Grove Middle School. Nicholas Oates got the job despite his troubling arrest history for sexually charged assaults against women.

Despite public outcry, state lawmakers have failed again and again to pass legislation requiring fingerprint-level background checks for all job candidates applying to work in public schools. House Bill 117 is one of the most recently thwarted legislative attempts to require fingerprinting. The bill’s sponsors included state representatives Holly Grange, Frank Iler, and Craig Horn.

“It has gotten stuck,” Rep. Horn explained of the bill’s fate. “There are an awful lot of people who are very concerned about privacy issues and things like that. I’m frankly a bit disappointed.”

The original bill would have required anyone applying for a state teaching license in North Carolina to be fingerprinted. Security experts say fingerprinting increases the odds of uncovering criminal information from a candidate’s past. But the bill died in committee, even after the language mandating fingerprinting statewide was removed.

Currently, it is left to the local boards of education to decide whether they will fingerprint teaching candidates as part of the application process. In southeastern North Carolina, Bladen County Schools is the only district to require fingerprinting for all prospective teachers.

Pender County Schools does not, but is researching the cost feasibility to fingerprint all new hires. Pender and other local districts currently do less robust background checks. Even then, they don’t always act on troubling information they uncover about a candidate’s criminal history as evidenced by the case of Nicholas Oates.

The North Carolina Board of Education, the State Department of Public Instruction, and even USA Today have raised alarms about North Carolina’s weak teacher background check system compared to other states. Officials in local school districts noted the cost and hassle of fingerprinting as some reasons they don’t require it.

Local districts we surveyed currently pay anywhere between $10 and $19 for basic criminal background checks. They use private vendors to run those checks, so the price varies. From the numbers we’ve been given, adding fingerprinting to the initial screening would add anywhere from $14 to $40 per applicant.

But education experts insist it is worth the cost.

The thoroughness of fingerprint-level background checks is one reason some teachers oppose it, concerned that a decades-old conviction or arrest could keep them from getting a job, even if the crime in question had no bearing on their current fitness to teach.

Representative Horn said the bulk of the opposition to his bill came from teachers associations that viewed fingerprinting as an intrusion and an insult to their profession.

“I would like a teacher to explain to me why they feel that it’s not appropriate for their background to be investigated if they’re going to be in close and continuing contact with children,” Horn said. “It has nothing to do with a competency of a teacher. It has everything to do with the safety of the school environment.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) confirmed it did not support House Bill 117, but not for the reasons you might think. In addition to the concerns mentioned above, an NCAE official noted that the original version of the bill required teaching applicants to pay for their criminal background checks (unless the local board elected to pay for the criminal background check on behalf of the applicant).

“We all want our public school classrooms to be safe and secure,” said Mark Jewell, president of the NCAE. “Background checks are one way to help ensure this, and we just want to makes sure they are being implemented in a legal and responsible manner.”

There may still be a chance to reach common ground for the sake of student safety. Representative Horn said the most expedient way to mandate fingerprinting would be to add the requirement to an existing bill involving safety in schools.

Whether he agrees with it or not, Horn said he understood that teachers who had been on the job for decades might take offense to suddenly being fingerprinted. To address that, he thought that veteran teachers may be able to be grandfathered in, and they could gradually implement the fingerprinting requirement by applying it to new hires only.

“Fingerprint backgrounds are very thorough. They pull up things that perhaps have long been forgotten, people have long since overcome,” Horn conceded. “I see no reason, particularly going forward, that we can’t say, ‘OK, here are the new rules and if you want to be a new teacher this is what you’re going to have to do.’”

“As a parent I have a right to know who is in [the classroom] with my kids,” Horn added. “I don’t see this as a threat to anyone at all unless you are a bad guy. Then, it should be a threat."

Fingerprinting is required for childcare workers in daycare centers that receive state or federal funding, and a new federal mandate dictates that all staff in North Carolina Pre-K centers be fingerprinted.

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