The School Committee last week proposed a new policy aimed at closing gaps in how the Wellesley district conducts criminal background checks on prospective employees.
The plan, drafted by School Committee members Diane Campbell and Ilissa Povich, is designed to be stricter and more thorough than the current policy, which has come under scrutiny since the arrest of a school custodian in October.
The policy would expand the range of individuals subject to Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, reports, add an option for consultation with the Police Department on interpreting those reports, and allow the school district to go directly to the courts for information.
The School Committee will be taking public comments and suggestions on the plan, which will be available on the district’s website, until the board votes on the new policy at its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 10.
The proposed revision follows the October arrest of Gino Lister, a Wellesley Middle School custodian who is accused of stealing more than $20,000 worth of Apple computer products and student-made jewelry from the school.
According to Framingham District Court documents, Lister was charged in 1998 with assault and battery, and in 2000 with unarmed robbery, breaking and entering in the nighttime, and larceny over $250. Both sets of charges were continued without a finding and eventually dismissed.
Schools in Massachusetts, said Deputy Police Chief William Brooks, have access to “full CORI,’’ which includes open or pending criminal cases. They can also access nonconvictions on criminal charges, such as not guilty dispositions or dismissals, as far back as an individual’s 17th birthday.
The School Committee proposed three changes to its CORI policy.
First, Povich said, the new policy would require that the school district run CORI checks on anyone who provides any kind of school-related transportation, as well as all subcontractors, laborers, and volunteers. The old policy, she said, allowed for this information to be gathered, but didn’t require it.
Secondly, the new policy would involve having police also review criminal-record checks that raise concerns.
“CORIs can be confusing to read,’’ said Povich.
A typical report shows an individual’s arraignment date, the arresting police department, the court, the charges, and the disposition, Brooks said. CORI reports use acronyms and legal language that can be difficult to decipher, he said.
“Some of it needs a little interpretation by somebody in the system,’’ said Brooks.
He said that the police can’t do additional background research on job applicants. “Our role would be to help interpret a record,’’ he said.
And finally, the new policy would allow school district administrators to go directly to the courts to check out information contained in an applicant’s report.
“Some dispositions, such as a continuation without a finding and dismissal, do not tell the whole story,’’ said Brooks.
Information contained in court documents can help shed light on the bare bones of the CORI.
A criminal record does not automatically bar a person from employment in a school, and deciding what information in a job applicant’s CORI would be grounds for disqualification is not a mathematically precise judgment. “I don’t think there’s a black-and-white line drawn,’’ said Brooks.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has warned employers against using criminal records as a hard and fast bar to employment, citing possible violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
“Nationally, blacks and Hispanics are convicted in numbers which are disproportionate to whites, and . . . barring people from employment based on their conviction records will therefore disproportionately exclude these groups,’’ according to a 1987 policy statement from the federal commission. In a 1990 policy guidance notice, the commission concluded that the use of arrest records as an absolute bar to employment was similarly exclusionary.
“There’s this kind of tension within the law,’’ said James Pender, a lawyer for the school district. “They have more access to a CORI report, but they can only use it for limited reasons.’’
The current CORI policy, available online, allows the district to deny employment based on relevance of the crime to the position sought, the nature of the work to be performed, time since the conviction, age of the candidate at the time of the offense, seriousness and specific circumstances of the offense, the number of offenses, and whether the applicant has pending charges.
Lister, now 35, would have been 22 at the time of his first arrest, and 25 at the time of his second arrest.
Wellesley resident Michael Kiernan spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting before the new CORI policy was discussed, and said that it was “still a little disturbing to me that we had a situation in the middle school where we put 1,100 students in a dangerous situation’’ by hiring Lister.
But after the policy was discussed, Kiernan said he felt satisfied by the changes the School Committee has proposed.
“They’re adding additional steps to ensure that there’s nothing hidden,’’ he said. “They clearly defined a process - the old and the new.’’
The School Committee will be seeking feedback on its proposed CORI policy for the next few weeks. Residents can e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.