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Bill to fix holes in criminal screens

With a bill intended to fine-tune a 2012 law, Massachusetts could join the rest of the country in running FBI background checks on teachers and other individuals who work with children.

The Legislature had intended to accomplish the expanded background checks for child care workers with a bill that cleared both chambers last December and was signed by Governor Deval Patrick in January. However, there were specific references in the new law that did not match up with federal law, according to state Representative Alice Peisch, the House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education.

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“The changes basically are just including the correct references to federal statutes that authorize the FBI to do the fingerprint checks,” Peisch said. “The FBI will not do them unless the language is exactly right.”

School bus drivers, day care providers, and camp counselors are currently required to undergo state criminal background checks, according to Peisch, as are school teachers. Once the 2012 law complies with federal requirements, Massachusetts child care workers would also go through national background checks.

“I believe we’re the only state not to do that,” said Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat.

Without the more extensive check, employers could miss a troubling conviction in another state, including for crimes that would qualify someone as a sex offender, according to House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican. Jones, who pushed the legislation along with Peisch last session, said the broader screening is geared toward employees, as opposed to volunteers who might still need to undergo state background checks.

The bill to amend the 2012 law cleared the House Committee on Ways and Means in an e-mail poll that ended Friday afternoon, with 17 members voting in favor of it and one member reserving his or her rights. A Ways and Means aide said the bill is likely to reach the House floor within the next month.

“I haven’t heard of anybody who has an issue with it,” Jones said. “Hopefully, it’s pretty straightforward.”

The law that the bill seeks to correct was passed during informal sessions, where there were no roll-call votes or debate and where any member could block action if they raised an objection.

Though the 2012 law attempted to enable state’s education officials to plug into the federal criminal database, state regulators discovered earlier this year that the law, as written, would not provide access to the FBI’s records.

The FBI does not “comment on potential legislation,” so state officials did not know that bill was insufficient until state officials attempted to implement it, Peisch said.

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