What You Don't Know Can Hurt the Children

Yet another news crew was set up across the street from the elementary school. They were obviously going to shoot footage for another story about the arrest of the fourth grade teacher, charged with molesting three students. The media was having even more of a field day now that they had learned that the teacher had previously resigned under pressure from a teaching position in another state following allegations of inappropriate conduct with students. Plus, the teacher had been convicted for the possession of child pornography several years before. Naturally, the parents who had children at the school were in a state of hysteria, school board members were asking many tough questions and at least one local attorney was already priming his subsequent civil case against school officials.

It is sad that countless such scenarios have unfolded around the country. They result in significant legal expenses, loss of confidence in those who educate our children, damaged morale of school employees and most importantly, irreversible damage to those who are victimized. What is even more disturbing than the fact that such situations occur, is the reality that most could be prevented if reasonable measures were taken to screen employees.

What should be done to screen those who will be trusted with access to property and people in your schools? What are the limitations of checks for previous criminal records? When is the last time that screening measures used by your organization were reviewed?

A number of states now mandate that criminal history checks be conducted on candidates for positions in educational fields. Even when not required to conduct such inquiries by state law, responsible public and private school systems require that applicants undergo a background check as a condition of employment. Failure to screen applicants properly is an invitation to disaster.

There are millions in the nation’s applicant pool with lengthy criminal records for violent crimes, drug offenses and crimes involving theft. Incidents around the nation document that many unfit and even dangerous individuals have been hired to work with and around children.

Sexual child predators, above all else, seek access to children. They frequently apply for positions that will give them the opportunity to interact with young people. School systems that do not conduct criminal history checks will hire such individuals, and they will in turn victimize innocent children.

Acts of workplace violence are another major ill that can sometimes be avoided through careful screening of applicants. In a number of incidents of this type, the perpetrator was hired after establishing a clear pattern of violent criminal behavior. Careful examination of prior work history, along with a criminal record check, can help to reduce the risk of tragedies of this type.

Also of concern are situations involving thefts that take place due to inadequate screening of employees. Hiring an individual who has a dozen theft-related convictions, for a position that grants them access to anything of value, will most likely result in losses.

The custodian who steals ten computers, or the accounts payable manager who embezzles $200,000, has frequently obtained the position by simply lying on the“previous criminal convictions” section of the job application – and taking the gamble that many employers do not actually attempt to verify this information.

Screening candidates for previous criminal conduct is only one aspect of crime prevention through hiring practices. Requiring six work-related references, instead of three, and interviewing each reference will paint a more accurate picture. A pre-employment drug screening program will help to weed out many potential problem employees, as will careful verification of all major credentials. Careful evaluation of all employees takes time, effort and fiscal resources. Lax review of candidates takes even more time, effort and is extremely expensive — in bigger installments.

Let us not forget contract employees, substitutes, temporary workers and, yes, even volunteers. Stolen property is just as gone if removed by a smiling parent-volunteer, as if removed by a thief in the night. The media coverage will be just as embarrassing when a substitute teacher snaps and physically assaults a student.

Regardless of how you choose to screen your employees, several things are important. Ask many questions. Remain vigilant and alert. There are dishonest and dangerous individuals who will seek employment with your organization. The only way to protect your school system, your employees and the children under your care is to be thorough and very afraid of what you don’t know. What you fail to discover about a candidate can hurt the children.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.