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Boston to boost scrutiny of school workers’ records

City to examine court records, fingerprint staff

Boston Public Schools, in a push to beef up background checks on employees, will meet the requirements of a new state law mandating that all staff be fingerprinted, and will go a step further by scouring court documents to see if a string of “nonconvictions” is a sign of questionable character.

The effort will enable Massachusetts districts, for the first time, to gain access to criminal records in other states.

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Other aspects of Boston’s policy revision would bring the city up to par with several other Massachusetts districts that give their superintendents greater discretion to weigh nonconvictions and any other information the superintendents consider relevant in determining whether to hire or promote someone. The Globe reported in February that Boston’s policy on criminal background checks was more narrow in scope.

Under the current policy, officials can deny employment only if a person was convicted of a crime specifically listed; they cannot disqualify individuals who settled cases without having a conviction appear on their record, even if they admitted to sufficient facts and were placed on probation.

“Our message should be, if you want to work with children, but have questionable behavior in the past, maybe you should look at another profession,” said Joseph Shea, deputy superintendent of operations for the Boston public schools.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is expected to formally recommend the policy change to the School Committee in the coming weeks. School Committee members, whose approval is required, reviewed the policy’s development at a recent meeting.

Some of the changes also are subject to negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union. Richard Stutman, the union’s president, said he does not anticipate any problems in reaching an agreement on the fingerprinting.

‘If you . . . have questionable behavior in the past, maybe you should look at another profession.’

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“Whatever the law requires, we want to go along with it,” Stutman said.

But he was torn about the School Department reviewing court files.

“We have to be vigilant about any unnecessary intrusion into someone’s personal life, but we also want to make sure everyone is protected all the way around, from children to teachers,” Stutman said.

Johnson decided to revise the policy in February after a series of hiring decisions raised questions about how carefully the School Department vets job applicants and how quickly the department responds when an employee has a run-in with the law.

Investigating nonconvictions can be a critical step in determining an applicant’s suitability for a job, according to specialists. In some instances defendants, as they seek to resolve a case quickly and avoid having a criminal conviction on their record, will admit to facts sufficient for a guilty finding, which routinely appears as nonconvictions or “continuances without a finding” on criminal background checks.

These settlements can involve some steep penalties, such as a year of probation, and in the case of assault and battery, completing a batterer’s program or an anger management course.

But Boston’s current policy allows school officials to consider only applicants’ convictions and only for specific crimes, such as rape, indecent assault and battery, or selling drugs. The policy also disqualifies applicants from employment if they have been “convicted of committing a felony constituting a crime of violence” that occurred in the five years preceding a criminal background check.

Shea said the policy “handcuffed us” in terms of what information officials could consider.

The policy’s narrow focus allowed Johnson last September to promote Queon Jackson to acting headmaster of Madison Park Vocational Technical High School without knowing about his past run-ins with the law that would have raised eyebrows in other districts.

In 2000, the same year Jackson was hired by the School Department as a provisional teacher, he admitted sufficient facts for a guilty finding in a domestic violence case involving a former girlfriend, and he also admitted sufficient facts for a guilty finding in another case that year involving counterfeit drugs.

No one from the School Department’s Human Resources Office alerted Johnson about those entries on his criminal record, presumably because they were listed as nonconvictions and he had worked in the district for more than a decade.

Johnson subsequently placed Jackson on leave in February, after the Globe raised questions about his promotion and she received new information about a federal investigation of his alleged role in a credit fraud ring.

The policy being developed would still list some convictions, such as murder, that would automatically disqualify someone from employment. But it would make clear ineligibility is not limited to that list and could also include a review of an “individual’s whole record,” according to the presentation to the School Committee.

“We are looking for patterns of behavior where individuals have engaged with law enforcement to see if they are suitable for employment,” Shea said.

The review, Shea said, could include going to court to review files if necessary — a practice that school officials told the Globe a few months ago was illegal, even after the Globe pointed out that other districts take such steps. Shea said the department has subsequently determined that it can look at court files.

“This will be part of our practice,” Shea said. “If there is any incident at all that we are not sure of, we will pull the file, look at it, and get the story behind the information.”

Concern over criminal background checks first came to light last summer when the Globe reported that Johnson proceeded with promoting Rodney Peterson to co-headmaster of the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury in the summer of 2011, even though he was facing charges of assaulting his wife.

Peterson ultimately admitted to sufficient facts for a guilty finding, and Johnson, who wrote a letter of support on his behalf to a judge, faced calls for her resignation from dozens of parents and City Councilor John Connolly.

During the School Committee meeting two weeks ago, at least one member, Mary Tamer, said she supported setting a high bar for employment.

“If someone has any history of a violent past, is that someone we want to work with children?” asked Tamer, who has been pushing for more rigorous criminal background checks. “I’m not saying someone who made a rash mistake at the age of 25 should not be employed, but what I am saying is I don’t necessarily think they should be employed working with children.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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