After months of delays, Massachusetts school districts have started fingerprinting teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and other employees, and forwarding the information to the FBI for national background checks.
The effort officially began this month in a handful of districts, with all school systems to follow in the coming weeks. Massachusetts is the last state to fingerprint school employees to more fully search for past criminal activity, state officials said.
The FBI will run submitted prints through its databases, enabling schools for the first time to receive criminal histories from jurisdictions outside Massachusetts and enhancing the chances of identifying any staff member with a criminal past. Previously, local districts only had access to Massachusetts criminal records through the so-called CORI system.
“It’s a little overdue,” said Jeff Wulfson, a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state so far has set up fingerprinting centers in Beverly, Boston, Bourne, and Pittsfield, and plans to open others elsewhere. Officials contracted with MorphoTrust in Billerica to take the fingerprints for what is officially called the “State Automated Fingerprint Identification System,” and submit them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Local districts will still conduct checks through the criminal offender record system.
The Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick approved a law over a year ago that authorized the fingerprinting of public and private school employees and child care workers at state-licensed centers. The effort was supposed to begin by the start of this school year, paving the way for the fingerprinting of tens of thousands of workers.
But the FBI noted the new law failed to reference the appropriate federal statutes necessary for the agency to run the background checks, prompting revisions by the Legislature. Patrick signed the changes into law in September.
Given the large volume of employees to be fingerprinted, state officials have decided that school districts should first begin with those hired for this school year, and that the remainder of employees can be completed by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
The most contentious part of the new requirement has been the cost. Staff members must pay the processing fee, $55 for licensed educators and $35 for other employees, such as clerical workers.
The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts is pushing legislation that would shift the cost onto school districts instead. Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his organization opposes that effort.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, said he plans to ask the Boston School Department to cover the fees for the union’s more than 5,000 members, which could cost more than $275,000.
“It doesn’t seem like our members should have to pay to prove their innocence,” said Stutman, nevertheless emphasizing that the union supports the idea of fingerprinting employees.
Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said some of his affiliates have convinced their districts to pay the fees. He, too, said he supports the fingerprinting requirement. “The top priority is the safety of our students and our members,” Toner said. “We see this as something that needs to be done.”
It is not clear why the state is the last to start fingerprinting school employees for national background checks. A state education official and education advocates last week could offer no explanation.
After the FBI runs the background checks, the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services and other state agencies dealing with public safety will review and prepare the reports for distribution to local districts.
If districts find any questionable information from the FBI reports, they could move to fire the employee, especially in cases where the offense jeopardizes an educator’s license.
Massachusetts can revoke a license if an educator has “pleaded guilty, received deferred adjudication, or been convicted in a court of law of a crime involving moral turpitude” or “lacks good moral character,” according to state rules.
Educators expect few districts will have to make those judgment calls. That’s because educators are required to reveal when they reapply for their licenses if they ever have been convicted of a crime, and that in this age of the Internet, news can spread quickly if an educator gets in trouble with the law out of state.
Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Boston public schools, said the district is not among those trying out the new fingerprinting system. He said the School Department is talking with union leaders about the fingerprinting, but is ready to go when the state gives the green light.
“The district’s highest priority is to provide a safe atmosphere for all of our students and staff and we believe that this measure is a valuable tool towards ensuring that,” Ballou said in an e-mail.